Rumba Kitchen is set to open Aug. 28 in Little Tokyo with a full menu of specialties focusing on Puerto Rican cuisine.
The restaurant’s opening represents the latest twist in an extended journey for chef Omayra Dakis and her family. It’s also a direct outgrowth and result of the success of their beloved — and busy — Triple Threat food truck. While the food truck’s menu largely consists of sandwiches and tostones (fried plantains), the restaurant will offer a wider spectrum of choices and dinner entrees.
Dakis and her husband, George, were considering ways to scale up their food truck business for some time.
“For the last two years, we’ve been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant,” she said. “We saw the opportunity of opening a restaurant coming out of a pandemic, because we needed that next step to (further develop) the menu. The food truck has a street food concept. The restaurant has a more sit-down traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.”
The couple had no prior background in food or hospitality; however, Dakis developed an interest in food trucks as a community organizer in South Florida, where the family resided before moving to Los Angeles in 2015.
“When we lived in Florida, I put community events together with food trucks,” Dakis said.
The local municipal regulations were quite restrictive for food truck operations.
“In Florida, it was required to have an organizer to take out a permit and coordinate the food trucks,” Dakis said. The food truck operators “didn’t have that liberty of parking and selling. In fact, a couple of cities in South Florida were trying to ban food trucks from working.”
That said, the experience did not lead them directly to their own food truck.
“We didn’t have a food truck ourselves until we were here for two years,” Dakis noted.
That turn came in an unlikely series of demands. In 2015, their then-7-year-old daughter, Maria, was cast on Fox’s “MasterChef Junior.” The extended parental commitment required George to take care of the couple’s younger daughter, Melyna.
“My husband had a corporate job, and he had to take a leave of absence,” Dakis said. “(Ultimately) he had to resign from his position. He said, ‘I guess now is a good time to open up that food truck you keep talking about.’ That’s when we opened up the (Triple Threat) food truck.
“We wanted to give an homage to our roots in Miami. In Miami, you can find a Puerto Rican food truck on every corner now. On the East Coast, Puerto Rican food is prevalent. Demographically in Southern California, there is not a well-defined or centralized Puerto Rican community.
“Here, Puerto Ricans are all spread out. There’s a small concentration in Riverside County, in Long Beach or Orange County and Ventura. A lot of them are military, believe it or not,” Dakis noted.
The launch of their Triple Threat Food Truck was by no means seamless or intuitive.
“The first year was really, really hard. It was an education situation,” Dakis said. “We had to educate our customers on what Puerto Rican food is, (and) a lot of Puerto Ricans didn’t know we existed.”
Then, a video about their truck and food posted on Buzzfeed’s “Pero Like” YouTube channel. It garnered more than 1 million views.
“That really put us on the map,” Dakis said. “We went from almost closing, almost being homeless, because we were putting all of our money back into the food truck. The very next day, after the video came out, we showed up to our stop and there were 400 people waiting, which is crazy. We took off. Everyone knew who we were. It got really crazy.”
Dakis continues to marvel at the experience.
“The reaction to our food was genuine. We blew their socks off.”
The notoriety led to an invitation to appear on the Food Network show “Guy’s Grocery Games” in October 2019. “That also gave us another avenue to reach even more people. People got curious that weren’t Puerto Rican. That really helped out as well,” Dakis said.
When the pandemic lockdown happened, the couple sidelined the Triple Threat truck temporarily.
“We took a two-week break,” she said. “Those two weeks were pivotal for us.”
They quickly implemented an online, no-cash ordering system that allowed for no-contact preordering and pickup for the truck, while enforcing strict sanitization protocols.
“No one caught COVID,” she said. “We’re thankful that we dodged that bullet. We took those proper precautions. It kept us safe, our staff safe and our kids safe, too.”
The ongoing success of the Triple Threat truck led to encouraging queries from fans about a restaurant, and Dakis teamed with an agent to scout viable locations.
“The magic of having a food truck is that you can test different areas and different markets,” Dakis said.
“We would always get requests for Downtown LA, (and) we did fairly well. We always liked Downtown. It was so centrally located for everyone.”
The Little Tokyo storefront appeared during the pandemic as a stroke of divine providence.
“We looked at the space, and we fell in love right away,” Dakis said.
“It worked very well with what we wanted do. It’s exactly where we need to be. We got goosebumps when we walked in. Everything about it was meant to be.”
Dakis and her team are finalizing the menu and pricing for the impending opening of Rumba Kitchen. Some of the items are culled from Dakis’ childhood. Her father is a Puerto Rican native, and she spent summers on San Juan beaches, snacking on treats from the “kiosko” food vendors.
“Spending that time really created the nostalgia for me,” Dakis said. “We were kids. I remember going to the kioskos, going to the beach. I wanted to bring that experience to LA.”
To honor those beach vendors, Rumba Kitchen will feature a fritanga board featuring a variety of fried snacks, including bacalaitos (salt cod fritters); morcilla blood sausage; tostones de pana; alcapurrias; and the fried cornmeal sticks, sorullos with mayo/ketchup dipping sauce.
A centerpiece dish will be a chiofrito, or whole fried snapper served with bread fruit and plantain tostones and a rich sofrito beurre blanc sauce. Assorted skewers, or pinchos, will be available, as well as steaks and lambchops.
A chuletta can-can for two will also be available. It’s a grilled and fried tomahawk-cut porkchop with pork belly attached. The menu will also feature eight varieties of mofongo relleno. The dish of mashed green plantain is typically served as a starchy side. At Rumba Kitchen, it’s a featured entrée with rich toppings like pollo guisado, fried pork and lobster. The ensalada de carruchos is a conch salad with the gulf shellfish, freshly sourced from Florida. By the way, the flans featured on the dessert menu are the proud products of daughter Maria, now 13.
For now, Rumba Kitchen will offer beer and wine, including a variety of fresh sangrias and a michelada employing a Puerto Rican lager. Dakis and a local craft brewery are working on a signature lager for the restaurant, and she hopes to serve spirits.
“We’d like to showcase the rums of Puerto, Rico because it’s a big deal. At some point in the future, it’s definitely something we plan on having,” she said.
In the meantime, the reservation line for Rumba Kitchen is active for its opening weekend starting Aug. 28, and seating is booking quickly.
“I’m very happy and thrilled to be a part of the community. We’re actually extremely excited to bring our food to Downtown LA,” Dakis said. “We can’t wait for people to try our food.”