Celebrating Latino culture through food

Latino-owned restaurants are paying homage to their culture every day with menu items inspired by their upbringing.

La Perla Puerto Rican Cuisine is located on Mac Arthur Blvd. in Oakland. For chef Jose Ortiz, music is the magic in his cooking.

“If I don't have salsa when I'm cooking, I'm not feeling it,” he said.

Ortiz prides himself on his authentic Puerto Rican dishes and making people feel at home when they come to his restaurant.

“The specialty of La Perla is the flavor of the food, the consistency,” Ortiz said. “People know when it's real Puerto Rican and it's not real Puerto Rican.”

La Perla is the name of a small town in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ortiz was born and raised in San Juan.

“I think I was about 7 or 9 years old when I was already in the kitchen with my mom and I was asking, ‘What's this? What's that?’,” he said.

The chef said he has carried family recipes with him to Oakland where people come for chicken, empanadas, and bacalaito – fried codfish. Cooking a celebration of Ortiz’s culture.

“Latinos, they should be very proud in this month to go out there and scream real loud, ‘I'm Hispanic. I'm Latino.’ I'm very proud,” he said.

Another restaurant beaming with Latino pride is Chica, short for Chicana. Chica is located at 303 Oakland Avenue. Co-owner and chef at Chica, Maria Esquivel, has added her own twist to what she calls a Chicana style menu.

“I’m Mexican American. I'm born and raised out here in the Bay Area. My mom is from Sinaloa and my dad is from Mexico City,” Esquivel said.

Chica was established in 2015. It started in a food truck and grew to a café where Esquivel makes sure her menu is fresh, vegan, and vegetarian friendly. Her recipes reflect her Mexican-American upbrining with a California flare.

“We're paying homage to the Chicana culture of being raised as American while being proud of being Mexican also,” she said.

You’ll find things on the menu like chilaquiles and chicken and waffles. Her love for cooking started young, at home. She picked up recipes from her grandmother and mother over the years.

“I did go to culinary school, so I did learn techniques there, but the flavors and the passion come from home,” Esquivel said.

Every dish is a nod to how she grew up.

“Hopefully you can taste that through our food,” she added. “We're just happy to be here. We're excited and we're growing strong.”