Havana Kitchen nearly closed before it served its first meal.
Owner and founder James Torres was set to open the restaurant in La Jolla at 1055 Torrey Pines Road in September when he was rushed to the hospital with a bad case of appendicitis.
Torres spent three weeks in the hospital and is still recuperating, so his older daughter, Sofia Torres, stepped in to take over as general manager to open the restaurant in late October.
She got some help in getting the restaurant up and running from her sister, Alianna Torres, a student at the University of San Diego, who is the restaurant’s barista, and her mother, Dianne Torres, a Spanish language teacher at Kate Sessions Elementary School in Pacific Beach.
“This is kind of like a whole family effort,” Sofia Torres said.
But the task of overseeing the restaurant’s operation fell to Sofia Torres.
“She knows how to navigate things efficiently. She is really good at organizing,” said Dianne Torres, who pitches in with advice and generally supporting Sofia.
“If she needs something from the market, there I go, or if she needs help figuring out a schedule, here I am,” Dianne Torres said. “It wasn’t an option not to open.”
A December 2022 graduate of San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy, running the family restaurant was not among Sofia Torres career plans. When her father fully recovers, she plans to resume her plans to go to graduate school to pursue a career in medicine as a physician or therapist.
“Once everything settles down, I’ll be focusing on grad school and creating my own path,” Torres said. “That’s either next year or in the next few years.”
She said that she always thought that she’d have a hand in the restaurant, “because it’s my family’s business,” but she never dreamed that she would be taking over as general manager soon after finishing college.
Cuban Roots Spread in San Diego
James Torres is the family’s Cuban connection. His parents left Cuba in the 1960s, moving first to New York then Los Angeles.
He opened his first restaurant in 2006 in a Murrieta industrial park, converting a front reception area into a dining room with six tables.
“We outgrew that space,” Sofia Torres said.
In 2012, James Torres opened his first Havana Kitchen in Temecula, which is still in business.
His family lived in La Jolla for a time, which gave him the idea of opening a Havana Kitchen in the area.
“This was kind of a projected idea based on how everything was going before my father got sick,” Sofia Torres said.
They leased space that had been a Mexican restaurant, and Torres said that everything had to be redone to give it a Cuban flair.
She didn’t have figures for how much the renovations cost, but she said that they were primarily cosmetic – adding new light fixtures, painting the walls, and hanging photographs and framed papers with what she described as “fun facts about Cuba.”
“It’s more of a cultural experience than just a food experience. Not only will people come and be so happy and satisfied with the food, but they’ll know more when they leave than when they came in,” Torres said. “The whole ethos of the restaurant and my purpose is not only to bring Cuban cuisine to people, but to inform people of Cuban culture. People are aware of Cuban food and Cuban music, but outside of that, it’s not well known.”
The menu at Havana Kitchen includes classis Cubano sandwiches, Cuban shredded beef, avocado Cubano and empanadas cooked Cuban style.
Specialties, according to Dianne Torres, include a pork dish that’s cooked for 12 hours in a marinade of olive oil, lemon and garlic sauce.
“We’re serving a menu that isn’t that common,” Sofia Torres said. “I’m very excited and hopeful about having Cuban food in that location.”
Headquarters: La Jolla
General Manager: Sofia Torres
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 858-230-6424
Notable: Havana Kitchen is a family-run restaurant that traces its roots to a small commercial kitchen that James Torres opened in Murietta in 2006 that has since closed.