For decades, food-obsessed Angelenos have known that the San Fernando Valley was the place to get lesser-known but equally special international cuisines. There’s the lone Chilean spot in at a Canoga Park strip mall, a cluster of Sri Lankan finds, some of LA’s best Salvadoran restaurants, Kandahar-style bolani hidden in a pizzeria, and beloved Argentine markets like Mercado Buenos Aires. Anything goes on these endless boulevards strewn with languid strip malls that betray the eyes of passersby with their hidden gems. So it made perfect sense to Odessa Rodriguez to open one of LA’s newest Puerto Rican restaurants, Tainos, in a quiet, almost hidden Canoga Park cloud kitchen.
Rodriguez, a 10-year LA resident, partnered with her husband Nick Varvatsoulis, a music producer and cannabis brand owner, to open Tainos in early December 2022. With additional help from her uncle and chef Erwin Torres, the trio has already built a steady following for Puerto Rican food, which isn’t an easy feat.
“I got tired of not being able to find good Puerto Rican food here in LA, so I called up my uncle, [whom we call] Papa Smurf, and he arrived from Puerto Rico a month before we opened,” says Rodriguez. With a tight timeframe to open, Torres leaned on his 35 years of experience as a chef in San Juan hotels like Windows of the Caribbean, Bahia, Gran Segovia, and La Isla Bonita to develop an appealing menu for Tainos.
LA has seen its share of well-known Puerto Rican restaurants come and go like Smorgasburg’s the Ricans Food; Rumba Kitchen and Triple Threat Truck (from chef Omayra Dakis); and Old San Juan Restaurant, all of which have closed. Only Mofongos in the North Hollywood Arts District has had long-term success since its opening in 2009. Los Angeles has a relatively small Puerto Rican population (some 48,000) compared to New York City (890,000), Orlando (269,781), Philadelphia (239,000), and Miami (207,000), cities that boast an abundance of Puerto Rican restaurants. Sizeable Puerto Rican and Dominican communities — both with foods that crossover — help sustain the restaurants. Tainos is betting on the West San Fernando Valley to build its brand and clientele on the strength of delicious, garlicky mofongos dripping with mojo.
On the starters menu, Torres offers a small selection of frituras (fried foods); a trio of flaky empanadillas (turnovers) including the popular pizza filling of marinara sauce and Mozzarella cheese; and the indispensable Puerto Rican snack of tostones, mashed and fried green plantains that are a must with every order. The next choice should be between arroz con gandules, Puerto Rican rice and beans that come with a nice punch of adobo. They work as an ideal pairing with perníl, tender roast pork shoulder. Another option is the arroz blanco con habichuelas, white rice with stewed red beans flavored by sazon (Puerto Rican seasoning powder) and sofrito (a typical flavor base of peppers, onions, garlic, and culantro). Churrasco, supple flank steak served with chimichurri, comes with a side of stewed beans.
The daily specials feature tasty Puerto Rican stews, allowing Torres to work home-style comfort dishes into the menu. Hearty asopao de pollo is a chicken and rice stew in a rich brown stock of tomatoes and ample spices, with sazón and sofrito that tastes like a Puerto Rican family gathering in a pot. It’s also available with shrimp, with a buttery, aromatic flavor reminiscent of gumbo. Another simple, flavorful dish is the carne guisada (shortened to carne guisa on the menu), a staple Puerto Rican savory beef stew that Torres cooks with love and spices with harmony.
Still, the star of Tainos LA’s offerings is the vibrant, mojo-soaked mofongos — Puerto Rico’s most iconic dish. Torres uses a traditional pilón de madera (a wooden mortar and pestle) to mash green plantains, with chicharrónes (pork crackling) and garlic pounded and then formed into a rich mold. Mofongos are best with tangy shrimp criollo or roast pork leg. The mofongo is delicious on its own, revealing layers of garlic, seasonings, sauces, and oil — a soft, luxurious bite as chunky and comforting as Thanksgiving stuffing.
While Rodriguez is new to the restaurant business, Torres’ experience in professional kitchens in Puerto Rico has provided a strong cooking foundation while they work out the kinks. “We are adding more dishes each week, and are growing steadily,” says Rodriguez, a sign that despite the small community, Puerto Rican cuisine is here to stay.
Tainos serves from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. 9020 Owensmouth Avenue, Ste. 20, Canoga Park, (747) 320-6326. Available for pickup and delivery.