Running a family-owned business can be hard. It can be even harder when one of the family members is hospitalized the night before the business opens.
But that’s exactly what happened to the Torres family when they sought to open a new Cuban restaurant in La Jolla.
For James Torres, the scheduled opening of Havana Kitchen on Sept. 20 was going to be the continuation of a dream. He had successfully opened a Cuban restaurant in Murietta in 2006 and moved it in 2012 to Old Town Temecula. As the Temecula restaurant flourished, it encouraged him to expand and open a second restaurant in La Jolla, where the family had moved to in 2017.
But on Sept. 19, Torres became ill with acute appendicitis and was rushed to surgery. Visiting him in the hospital, his oldest daughter, Sofia Torres, pledged to jump in and help with the opening.
“He told me that he needed help doing this and I was like, don’t worry about it, I’ll figure it out,” she said.
The following day and weeks since, Sofia, 23, and her younger sister, Alianna, 19, found themselves all of a sudden working closely with the kitchen staff to get the restaurant up and running. Their mother, Dianne, had also taken leave from her local teaching job to help.
“Obviously, opening the restaurant you have to be all in,” said Sofia.
For Sofia, the timing allowed her to dive in. She graduated from the University of San Diego in December after studying political science and philosophy and was looking for a job.
“Luckily, I had the time in my day to invest all my time and energy into making the restaurant work,” she said. “This isn’t necessarily my life and my job. It is for now until he can get back on his feet.”
The restaurant’s recipes come from generations of her dad’s family, the food they cooked in Cuba. That includes their specialties, ropa vieja (shredded beef), roast pork and what Sofia calls “the best Cuban sandwich you’ll have.”
Sofia said her father wanted to make sure the restaurant offers cuisine from different regions of Cuba. The menu also features Cuban pastries.
The restaurant, at 1055 Torrey Pines Road, has indoor and outdoor dining and is brightly decorated with signs offering information and sayings about Cuba.
“It’s a way to connect to (Cuban) culture,” she said. “It’s not just about food.”
Since its opening, Havana Kitchen restaurant has been gaining more customers, including a lot of locals, said Sofia.
“I really think people underestimate their willingness to kind of try new foods and try new cuisine because we’ve had people come in here and they say we’ve never had Cuban food and we want to try it,” she said. “I think that’s wonderful.”
Havana Kitchen’s opening adds to the recent growth in Cuban restaurants in San Diego. Havana Grill opened in Clairemont Mesa seven years ago and added a second location in Mission Valley this year. El Cubano Restaurant opened in Carlsbad last year.
Those openings followed last year’s closing of Andre’s, a Morena Boulevard restaurant that lasted more than 30 years. Azucar, a Cuban patisserie with pastries and sandwiches, has operated in Ocean Beach since 2008.
Havana Kitchen had a soft opening with limited hours but is expanding. Starting this week, the restaurant will be closed on Monday but open 11-7 Tuesdays-Thursdays and 11-8 Fridays and Saturdays.
Although James Torres still hasn’t been able to visit his restaurant because of his recuperation from his illness, he has been overseeing the restaurant’s menu and operations from home. And he’s not slowing down as Sofia said he’s already thinking of opening another restaurant in North County.
More information about the restaurant is available at havanakitchen.com.