3409 Fruitvale Ave. (near Bienati Way), Oakland
La Perla, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in the East Bay, opened four years ago inside MacArthur Boulevard’s Two Star Market. It moved into its own space a year ago, during one of the most fraught periods of the pandemic. Now, owner Jose Ortiz, his son Gabriel Ortiz and daughter-in-law Kimly Touch Ortiz are gearing up to celebrate their first year as a standalone restaurant this weekend.
The party runs from 12-7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 12. Attendees will be able to try many classic Puerto Rican dishes that La Perla has become known for, and will get a first look at the restaurant’s new parklet. Until now, La Perla has been open for takeout only, so this signals yet another chapter in the evolving business.
Even by pandemic standards, it’s been a roller coaster year. La Perla almost closed before it could open, after the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health told the restaurant just days before opening that they needed to swap out the kitchen’s tile flooring — an unexpected and costly expense, given that for years the same 1,500-square-foot restaurant had operated without issue as a Subway sandwich restaurant. As Jose had already spent around $80,000 to renovate the 3409 Fruitvale Ave. space, it was a painful blow, but he dug deep and spent the money.
Since then, Jose has taken a step back from the restaurant. When it opened, he was its main chef and head of operations, but then he realized that he needed more time to rest and recover than a restaurant’s grueling schedule allows. He’s turned day-to-day operations to Gabriel and Kimly. Gabriel had been working as a park ranger for the East Bay Regional Park District, and Kimly was a school teacher for Contra Costa Unified School District. They both left their jobs to run La Perla full time.
“At this point in my life, I’m ready to let them take over from here,” Jose said. “When you cannot function at 100 percent, you should stay out of the kitchen.”
Kimly and Gabriel, both Oakland natives, have some experience working in the service industry, and one of the challenges was switching back to a restaurant mindset. Ten years ago, Kimly worked as a barista at Peet’s coffee.
“Gabriel and I were living a block from here, we just had our first daughter, and I was teaching part-time,” she said, “so I had a super early, four-in-the-morning gig at Peets.” Kimly now applies the customer service and organizational skills she learned at Peets on a daily basis. “Things that I never gave much thought to while I was working there are helping me a lot now.”
Prior to leaving his job as a park ranger, Gabriel and his brother Moises would help their father from time to time at La Perla’s old location. Growing up, Jose taught both of his sons how to make the dishes he learned from his mother in La Perla, his childhood neighborhood and the restaurant’s namesake. “This is not, ‘Let’s open up a cookbook and learn how to make this,’” Gabriel said, “We are representing [Puerto Rican culture] in Oakland.”
Gabriel and Kimly’s approach to representing Puerto Rican culture in Oakland looks different than Jose’s, who spent his youth in the island’s barrios before enlisting in the military and relocating to Oakland with his wife. Gabriel is Puerto Rican on his father’s side and Filipino on his mother’s, and his Spanish speaking skills are limited. For Gabriel, connecting with Puerto Rico means staying true to his grandmother’s recipes and learning about his people’s complex history.
“It’s more than just the language because did the Tainos [the indigenous people of Puerto Rico] or the Africans who were brought to the island speak Spanish? No,” Gabriel said. “Our food comes from taking little bits of different cultures, and that melting pot is what has created our food, style, and flavor.”
For Kimly, who is Cambodian and was raised in East Oakland, her love for the food was her entry into the culture. “Me and Gabriel are going on 19 years together, and when we first started dating I used to love when Jose would cook Puerto Rican food for the holidays,” she said. “Now, no one’s cooking because we eat this food at the restaurant and it feels like Thanksgiving everyday.”
Kimly also credits her upbringing on Fruitvale Avenue for being able to connect with different people’s cultures. “That’s the heart of Oakland — so many people are not from here but can make more than where they came from.”
Aside from adjusting to their new roles as restaurant managers, the past year’s challenges were similar to other successful businesses still struggling with pandemic-induced problems.
“The cost of things have skyrocketed through the roof and with the supply chain crisis, you never know when you’ll be able to find simple items like a to-go container,” Gabriel said. “That continues to be one of the biggest challenges.”
Still, there’s been much for them to be happy about, including the move from MacArthur Boulevard to Fruitvale Avenue.
“The positive is that now we’re on the main avenue [in the neighborhood] and we have more exposure in the community,” Gabriel said. “We have neighbors here say, ‘We’ve been watching you at your old location in the liquor store, but now that you’re here, we feel more comfortable trying your food.’”
For Gabriel and Kimly, the most positive change this past year in business has been being able to spend more time with their family. On different days, Kimly’s mother will come and help watch their kids at the restaurant, who are still doing distance learning. Jose pops in from time to time when they need help making food, and their 17-year old nephew works the weekend shifts.
“I get to see my kids so much now,” Gabriel said, who used to see his two daughters for only an hour every day after finishing his work as a park ranger and part-time shift at La Perla.
“We close on Sundays now, and we can choose to go on a day trip or just be lazy at home. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
La Perla’s first anniversary party is on Saturday, Feb. 12, from 12-7 p.m.