Since 2017, Chef Jose “Cheo” Ortiz and his sons, Moises and Gabriel, have been making a name for themselves serving Puerto Rican delicacies out of a tiny convenience store in Oakland’s Dimond District. Now, the Ortiz family is packing up and moving La Perla, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in Oakland, to a larger brick-and-mortar location in the same neighborhood. The restaurant is scheduled to make its debut at the new location later this month.
Ortiz and his sons signed the lease last February, a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to temporarily close. While it’s been tough not being able to interact with customers at the convenience store location during the pandemic, said Ortiz, the family has kept busy serving customers with takeout orders and providing meals to vulnerable communities through World Central Kitchen and Steph and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play Foundation.
“We’ve found ourselves in the situation where [the pandemic] hasn’t really affected us at all,” Ortiz told The Oaklandside. “I cook a lot of food for loyal customers who always order from me.”
La Perla’s mouthwatering dishes like mofongo with crispy chicharrón de pollo (seasoned, mashed plantains with fried chicken cracklings) have garnered praise from everyday Oaklanders and celebrities alike, including members of the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Blue Jays, and Puerto Rican music icon Elvis Crespo.
It was that reputation that helped La Perla secure its new brick-and-mortar space, according to Ortiz. “When the owner chose us between 40 people, it’s because they already did their homework,” he said.
Commercial property owners have approached Ortiz in the convenience store in the past and offered to have him relocate his restaurant to other cities including San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles, he said. But Ortiz always rebuffed those offers. Although he’d like to expand his business one day, he said the flagship restaurant will always remain in Oakland.
“I’ve been here 43 years,” he said. “I’m a true Oaklander.”
Family is at the root of La Perla’s success
The restaurant’s humble beginnings are appropriate given the place it’s named after—La Perla, a small but well-known neighborhood in San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital. Growing up there, Ortiz was immersed in a culinary lifestyle. His father worked as a chef at a hotel in San Juan, and Ortiz spent hours helping his mother cook in the family’s kitchen. “I wasn’t just watching, I was working with her,” he told The Oaklandside. “If you’re going to be in the kitchen, she’s gonna make you work.”
When their mother came home from work in the evenings, Ortiz and his siblings were expected to have dinner ready. To this day, it’s one of the reasons Ortiz appreciates the amount of time and labor involved in cooking and takes pride in his ability to make quality meals.
“Puerto Rican food is not something that you cook fast like you’re making a taquito, it’s a process that takes hours,” Ortiz said. One example is pernil, a Puerto Rican-style pork shoulder that Ortiz said he cooks for 12 hours.
Ortiz enjoyed preparing meals for his family but never planned on following in his parents’ footsteps. He opted to join the U.S. army and was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he met his wife, who is from Oakland. Shortly after marrying in the late 1970s, the couple moved to San Juan.
But Ortiz noticed that his wife wasn’t acclimating well to life in Puerto Rico. “She was crying all the time,” said Ortiz. “She told me she was homesick.”
Ortiz and his wife decided to relocate to Oakland, and moved in with her parents at their home in the hills. Besides his wife, Ortiz said, he “didn’t know one person, not one person.” He worked for a long time as an auto mechanic until he started cooking for Borinquen Soul, a now-defunct Puerto Rican restaurant. “Now I know a million people,” referring to the numerous customers he’s had over the years.
La Perla’s success, according to Ortiz, is thanks to his family. His sons Moises and Gabriel convinced their father to open La Perla because they knew he was skilled enough to start his own business. Both now help Ortiz as cooks at La Perla. Gabriel even quit his job as a park ranger at East Bay Regional Park District to work at the restaurant, according to Ortiz.
Ortiz appreciates his sons and said working with family always beats working with strangers because “family looks after you better than any other person.”
Just like his mother did when he was young, Ortiz took pride in teaching his sons how to cook for themselves, and he’s now doing the same for his 17-year-old grandson, who also works at La Perla. “It’s good that they learn these skills to survive,” he said. “Nowadays you find people who don’t even know how to fry an egg.”
While Ortiz has dreams of one day turning La Perla into California’s first Puerto Rican restaurant chain, he said he’ll never leave the town where he found success and community.
“I told my family, when I pass away, I want to be buried here,” Ortiz said. “Puerto Rico is my second home. Oakland is my first home.”
La Perla’s new restaurant will be located at 3409 Fruitvale Ave. in the Dimond District. The restaurant is scheduled to open sometime in January and the tentative hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily.