Though named after the neighborhood that sits below the archaic walls of Old San Juan, Oakland’s La Perla has a very different atmosphere. It’s located inside a convenience store, the Two Star Market on MacArthur Boulevard, and owned by chef Jose Ortiz (affectionately known as Cheo), who hails from Levittown, Puerto Rico.
Ortiz, previously the chef of now-closed Borinquen Soul, and his family are quietly — and sometimes not so quietly, considering Ortiz’s habit of loudly singing along to the kitchen radio — cooking up Puerto Rican food in a part of California that doesn’t have much of it. And their cooking and community involvement have brought them much-deserved attention in recent months, including a coveted position feeding the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena.
It was serendipity that one of their regular customers, Marcos Mendoza, just happened to become the Warriors’ executive chef in 2018, taking control of all the VIP areas, the 84 suites, and the entire food sector of the Oracle Arena. Marcus, 34, moved from Panama to Sacramento at the age of 14, where he eventually worked as a cook for two full seasons with the Sacramento Kings. Now living in Oakland, Mendoza was impressed with La Perla’s food and hard work. He invited them to cook for the team during the NBA finals in April.
“He told us he would try to get us an audition for the playoffs, which he did,” says Gabriel Ortiz, one of Cheo’s four sons involved in the business. “He got a spot for us to audition and showcase our food for the chefs at the Oracle Arena.”
Unlike playing in the finals, says Gabriel, the audition process wasn’t high-pressure. “It was pretty informal and laid-back. They were setting up and prepping for a concert for that same night. We brought sample dishes, like a small catering order of mostly everything on our menu, and they decided from there.”
Over 1,000 empanadillas were filled with picadillo (sofrito-laced ground beef mixture), folded, and fried to feed VIPs during the first round of the playoffs. Another catering company, which made sushi, also contributed on game day.
La Perla hasn’t been cooking for the team during the tumultuous championship games, as the team travels back and forth to Toronto. But the experience has left the Ortiz family with some new, famous fans, including Ayesha Curry.
Beyond those crusty empanadillas, La Perla serves a selection of traditional Puerto Rican dishes at its Oakland location, including chicharron de pollo, chicken thighs cut into chunks and deep fried until crispy on the outside and tender and juicy in the center; arroz con gandules (seasoned rice with pigeon peas); and maduros (overly ripe yellow plantains that are fried until the sugars caramelize and the edges become blackened, crackled, and sticky and the center becomes custardy). And, of course, mofongo, the crowning glory of Puerto Rico’s cocina criolla gastronomy, in which green plantains are fried and then mashed along with garlic, salt, and sometimes oil.
But, the food isn’t the only key to the restaurant’s success, or why it was invited to Oracle Arena. It’s also Ortiz’s showmanship, and the way that the chef ensures you’re having a good time, and how he can be seen sporadically bringing out a single crispy chicharron for a guest of honor to try at its peak deliciousness.
It’s the ability to deliver a comforting and welcoming environment in a place least expected, amid the well-stocked aisles of a convenience store. (Which possibly shows you don’t need a million-dollar revamp in order to run a successful restaurant.) “Anything to drink in the store is on me,” Cheo says.
Illyanna Maisonet is a Bay Area writer covering Puerto Rican food and community.