For nearly three years, La Perla has been one of the great hidden treasures of Oakland’s Dimond District: a bustling, wildly delicious-smelling Puerto Rican takeout spot tucked inside the Two Star Market liquor store on MacArthur Boulevard. Now, the business is ready to take its next step: Cheo and Gabriel Ortiz, the father-and-son team behind La Perla, are moving the family business to a new location — just around the block at 3409 Fruitvale Avenue — that’s about four times as big.
It’s likely to be a destination restaurant from day one, simply because of the sheer paucity of Puerto Rican food options in the Bay Area. In the East Bay, in particular, La Perla will be the only full-fledged Puerto Rican restaurant — a standalone spot where customers will be able to feast on arroz con gandules, shrimp mofongos, and slow-roasted pernil.
It’s no wonder, then, that even back in the restaurant’s back-of-the-bodega days, it would routinely draw customers from as far away as Sacramento, Turlock, and Monterey, many of them Puerto Ricans desperate for a taste of home. “I can’t forget it, there was a couple, they showed up with their luggage, and they said, ‘Hey, we’re from Hawaii,’” Gabriel Ortiz says. “They were on their way to the airport, but they made sure to stop by and have a bite to eat with us.”
Located just a couple of blocks away from La Perla’s previous pop-up incarnation, the new restaurant is a 1,500-square-foot former Subway that Ortiz says represents “a funny part of the history” of the restaurant: Back in 2017, the owners of Two Star Market first approached Cheo Ortiz about taking over the little takeout counter inside the liquor store — he’d been one of the cooks at Borinquen Soul, the well-loved Puerto Rican spot that preceded La Perla in the space. That day, they’d all walked around the corner to the same Subway to sit down and hash out the details.
Now things have come full circle, and the former Subway is nearly unrecognizable, painted with bright, vibrant colors on every wall. “We wanted to mimic the downtown scene of old San Juan,” Ortiz says.
Like so many restaurants during this pandemic, La Perla was supposed to have opened months earlier: The Ortizes signed the lease on the space in early March of last year, back when the COVID-19 crisis still felt like more of a vague rumor than a world-altering pandemic. They’d hoped to open by summer, but then business at the bodega plummeted once the shelter-in-place order went into effect. In the months that followed, they didn’t have the kind of cash flow they needed to pay for all of the improvements they wanted to make on the space.
The one saving grace, Ortiz says, is that the restaurant was able to hook up with World Central Kitchen, serving 800 to 1,000 meals to people in need each week through the summer and fall months.
Now, the Ortizes are finally ready to give the restaurant their full attention. All of the family recipes are overseen by Cheo, the head chef — or “the guy,” as his son puts it. (Other family members, including Ortiz’s wife Kimly and his brother Moises — and even chef Cheo’s grandchildren Santana, Aliyah, Scarlett, and Luna — all help run the family business.) La Perla is known for its mofongos: green plantains that are mashed, then fried and topped with different proteins. The restaurant almost certainly offers the widest variety of mofongos that you can find in the Bay Area, topping them with everything from shrimp to chicharron de pollo (fried chicken, with the crispy skin attached) to a whole lobster tail.
Beyond that, La Perla covers most of the greatest hits of Puerto Rican comfort cooking: orange-tinted, indescribably savory arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas); pasteles (aka “Puerto Rican tamales”), offered all year round and not just during the holidays; and a variety of flaky empanadillas, including a version called the “Tropical Pig,” filled with pernil (roasted pork shoulder) and pineapple.
Speaking of that pernil: The crispy-skinned pork shoulder, slow-roasted for 14 hours, is another one of La Perla’s calling cards that will be available as a weekend special. In general, Ortiz says, the restaurant will keep its original menu from its Two Star Market days, but the larger kitchen will allow them to run more daily chalkboard specials — say, a whole fried snapper or the oversized fried pork chop known as chuleta can-can.
It’ll be takeout only to start out, but the restaurant will have a couple of tables set up outside on its back patio, first come first served, for anyone who wants to sit down and eat. Eventually, though, the restaurant will have seating for at least 30 diners inside, with plans for a possible parklet in front in the works. In keeping with the business’s bodega roots, it’ll stick with just counter service even after indoor dining gets underway.
Ortiz says he’s well aware of the responsibility that comes with introducing people to a cuisine and a culture that they might not be familiar with. “A lot of times, people ask me if we have tacos or burritos. And we educate them — we say, ‘We’re actually from the island, and this is the type of flavor that we have,’” Ortiz says. “And then they take a bite and they love it.”
La Perla’s opening day at 3409 Fruitvale Avenue will be Sunday, February 14. To start out, the restaurant will be open Wednesday through Sunday.
Correction, February 4, 9:15 a.m.: A previous version of this story stated that La Perla was the East Bay’s first standalone Puerto Rican restaurant. There was one other Puerto Rican restaurant, Sofrito, that closed in the late 2000s.