Puerto Rican and Caribbean meals are the stars of Taino’s menu.
Ismael Ortiz’s dream came true when he opened Taino’s, a Puerto Rican and Caribbean restaurant, in spring 2016.
“It was my dream to have my own restaurant — but it was more than that,” he says.
I spoke to Ortiz on a weekday afternoon between the busy lunch and dinner crowds. But even then, there wasn’t much downtime for him. We spoke while he kept things running in the kitchen, taking care of business, helping the staff, laughing at some kitchen antics.
“My dream was to have a restaurant with my kind of food,” he says.
Ortiz learned the classical French method while a student at Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee, and then honed those skills under Tim Richards, then-chef at Bodean
Seafood. It was excellent training, but it’s not where his training began.
Ortiz’s culinary education began as a kid in Miami, watching his Puerto Rican mom make pernil — a slow-roasted pork — on holidays, and watching his Jamaican and Cuban friends’ mothers cook jerk chicken and fried plantains. It was there he learned to appreciate the sizzle of onions and garlic in a sauté pan and the unmistakable bright flavor of cilantro.
Taino’s has quickly become a cult favorite among foodies looking for the next best thing and chefs coming in for a meal on their days off from their own restaurants. It also has become a second home to those craving Puerto Rican, Caribbean and South American food, which isn’t exactly ubiquitous in Tulsa. Taino’s is named after the Taino tribe of natives that lived in parts of the Caribbean when Columbus first arrived in the Americas.
The night I visited, a group of women, including a Puerto Rico native, laughed and salsa danced in their chairs to music in the restaurant. A man nearby ordered a Puerto Rican specialty and smiled, telling the server he hadn’t had it in years. Taino’s isn’t the kind of place most people just happen into. Rather, those who are there are there intentionally — and happily.
Ortiz’s wife, Chiaki, was an excellent server, helping us navigate the menu, pointing out house favorites and helping with pronunciation. She helped us decide on pernil, which she said had been cooking all day. It arrived falling off the bone, with flavorful pieces of pork cozily placed next to black beans and rice, seasoned with garlic and other spices.
The recommendation of the fish of the day was spot on; flavorful snapper was grilled and served on top of slow-simmered red beans and a guisao rice, flavored with tomato sauce, garlic and chicken stock.
Both of these dishes were served with tostones, Puerto Rican twice-fried plantains. Taino’s tostones are super crisp on the edges, with a real plantain taste in the center. Ortiz drizzles the hot tostones with mojito-garlic sauce and a creamy aioli. Most entrees come with the tostones, but if you’re as big a fan as we were, you might want to place a separate order for more.
Ortiz is serious about his Cuban. He says he has had Cuban sandwiches in Tulsa before, but something was always “off.”
“I hate to say this, but they chef it up,” he says. “I believe some things need to be left alone.”
This Cuban is substantial, with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. It’s served with french fries, but you might go for the tostones instead.
Ortiz says he gets the most questions about the mofongo — a dish of mashed green plantains with butter, onions, garlic and crispy pork skin. The result is a mashed potato-like consistency with crispiness from the pork skin and meat.
Arroz con Pollo has the heart of a risotto, with a delicate combination of pigeon peas, cilantro, onions and chicken stock. Bits of chicken add a balance of flavor. This is Puerto Rican comfort food.
“I do my rice and my beans the traditional way,” Ortiz says. “The beans stew all day. People love it.”
Taino’s has several items off the menu, like a special the night I visited: a Cuban-style steak served with black beans and rice. Puerto Rican sliders — with tostones, Swiss cheese and garlic butter — are a savory delicacy ordered by those in the know. One of the most fun items off-menu is the Hommy roll, named after the Ortizes’ son.
Ortiz wanted to make something to honor his wife’s Japanese heritage, so he came up with a Puerto Rican-Japanese fusion sushi roll. The cooked roll has pernil, avocado, cream cheese and plantains. It’s breaded with panko, deep fried and topped with a black bean sauce.
4840 S. Memorial Drive | 918-622-2291
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., daily