Berkeley restaurants

La Perla Celebrates a Year of Serving Puerto Rican Cuisine to Oakland Residents

La Perla, Puerto Rican restaurant in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Pearl
3409 Fruitvale Ave. (near Bienati Way), Oakland

La Perla, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in the East Bay, opened its doors four years ago in the Two Star Market on MacArthur Boulevard. He moved into his own space a year ago, during one of the toughest times 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 will take place from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 12. Attendees will be able to sample many of the classic Puerto Rican dishes that La Perla has become known for and get a first look at the restaurant’s new parklet. Until now, La Perla has only been open for take-out, which marks a new chapter in the company’s evolution.

Even by pandemic standards, this has been a roller coaster year. La Perla nearly closed before it could open, after the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health told the restaurant days before it opened that it needed to replace the kitchen tile — an unexpected and costly expense, being given that for years the same 1,500 square foot restaurant had operated smoothly as a Subway sandwich restaurant. Since Jose had already spent about $80,000 renovating the space at 3409 Fruitvale Ave., it was a big 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 operations manager, but then realized he needed more time to rest and recuperate than the grueling schedule of a restaurant would allow. . He entrusted day-to-day operations to Gabriel and Kimly. Gabriel worked as a ranger for the East Bay Regional Park District and Kimly was a teacher for the Contra Costa Unified School District. They both quit their jobs to run La Perla full time.

“At this point in my life, I’m ready to let them take over,” Jose said. “When you can’t function at 100%, you have to 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 getting back to a restaurant mindset. Ten years ago, Kimly worked as a barista at Peet’s Cafe.

“Gabriel and I lived a block from here, we had just had our first daughter and I was teaching part-time,” she said, “so I had a gig super early, four morning hours at Peets.” Kimly now applies the customer service and organizational skills she learned at Peets on a daily basis. “Things that I never thought about much while working there help me a lot now.”

Before quitting his job as a ranger, Gabriel and his brother Moises helped their father from time to time at the old location of La Perla. Growing up, Jose taught his two sons how to prepare the dishes he learned from his mother at La Perla, his childhood neighborhood and the restaurant’s namesake. “It’s not, ‘Let’s open a cookbook and learn how to do it,'” Gabriel said, “We represent [Puerto Rican culture] in Oakland.

Gabriel and Kimly’s approach to representing Puerto Rican culture in Oakland is different from that of Jose, who spent his youth in the island’s barrios before enlisting in the military and moving to Oakland with his wife. . Gabriel is Puerto Rican on his father’s side and Filipino on his mother’s side, and his Spanish skills are limited. For Gabriel, connecting to Puerto Rico means staying true to his grandmother’s recipes and discovering the complex history of its people.

La Perla, Puerto Rican restaurant in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

“It’s more than the language because the Tainos [the indigenous people of Puerto Rico] or the Africans who were brought to the island speak Spanish? No, said Gabriel. “Our food comes from small pieces of different cultures, and this melting pot is what created our food, our style and our flavor.”

For Kimly, who is Cambodian and grew up in East Oakland, her love of food was her gateway into the culture. “Me and Gabriel are going to spend 19 years together, and when we started dating, I loved when Jose cooked Puerto Rican food for the holidays,” she said. “Now nobody cooks because we eat this food at restaurants and it’s like Thanksgiving every day.”

Kimly also credits her upbringing on Fruitvale Avenue for her ability to connect with different people’s cultures. “It’s the heart of Oakland – so many people aren’t from here but can earn more than where they’re from.”

In addition to adjusting to their new roles as restaurant managers, the challenges of the past year were similar to those of other successful companies still struggling with pandemic-induced issues.

La Perla, Puerto Rican restaurant in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

“The cost of things has skyrocketed and with the supply chain crisis, you never know when you’ll be able to find simple items like a takeout container,” Gabriel said. “That continues to be one of the biggest challenges.”

Still, they had plenty to be happy about, including the move from MacArthur Boulevard to Fruitvale Avenue.

“The positive thing is that now we are on the main avenue [in the neighborhood] and we have more visibility in the community,” said Gabriel. “We have neighbors here who say, ‘We watched 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 in the past year in business has been being able to spend more time with their family. On different days, Kimly’s mother will come to help babysit their children at the restaurant, who are still taking lessons from a distance. Jose comes in from time to time when they need help cooking, and their 17-year-old nephew works weekends.

“I see my kids so much now,” said Gabriel, who only saw his two daughters for an hour a day after finishing his job as a ranger and part-time job at La Perla.

“We close on Sundays now, and we can choose to take a day trip or just be lazy at home. I wouldn’t change that for the world.

La Perla’s first anniversary party will take place on Saturday, February 12 from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.