“IF you ask me to make something spicy, I can make your mouth water,” says Richard Rojas, manager of La Cita Rendez-vous. As a declaration it’s part boast, part threat – but it certainly draws in punters eager to sear their taste-buds on authentic latino food.
“Most ethnic restaurants based in other countries, they try to put in a little taste of the country they’re in. But I don’t want to do that,” he said. “Whether you like my food or not, that’s the way it is in Mexico, or Peru, or Chile.”
Rojas, 41, moved to Cambodia last year and opened his restaurant in April. Originally, the restaurant served a mix of western and Khmer food, but the Chilean wasted little time in introducing meals from his roots.
“Two months ago I said ‘I’m fed up with this. I have to have latino food.’ I wanted to do it from the beginning, but I was scared of whether people would accept it.” The move to an exclusively latino menu was a winner, said Rojas, with his popularity increasing “300 percent”.
La Cita uses recipes from several countries in central and South America. The most popular dish – lomo saltado – is a Peruvian favourite that mixes strips of beef with potato chips.
Other popular items include the burger, made with strips of beef instead of a patty, and your classic Mexican menu boilerplate: tacos, burritos and quesadillas, all with home-made tortillas.
The shift to hot latino food has seen the restaurant’s popularity soar amongst the Japanese community, a cult following that took Rojas by surprise.
“It’s a little bit weird…how they know about me I don’t know,” he said, adding that many of his Japanese customers have worked in South America and developed an appetite for hot dishes.
“I think when I changed to a latino menu, that’s the point where a lot of Japanese people started to come in. Because we’re cooking the real stuff.”
Training his staff in the way of the tortilla was a long and thankless process, Rojas said, involving much time, confusion and dropped plates. “Chilean food is a long process to cook. What we cook in the morning, it’s not to eat at noon, it’s to eat in the afternoon. The preparation is expensive and it’s time consuming…for them it’s another world completely.”
Now his head cook can whip up the dishes herself and the staff can operate independently, though Rojas is quick to remind them that big brother (or grande hermano) is always watching, via security
cameras in the kitchens that link to his iPhone.
Even so, he said customers keep him in the kitchen, “They keep calling out for me,” he said. “They ask, ‘Can the owner cook my meal?”