Merced’s newest (and only) Puerto Rican restaurant — Chef Rafa’s Kitchen-Agueybana — is set to have its grand opening this Saturday, March 19, at 1513 W Main St in Merced. The doors open at 11 a.m. On the menu: Caribbean Cuisine inspired by the Puerto Rican culture of the Melenvez Family.
Appetizers, Salads, Grilled Subs, Burger Haven, Sabores de mi Tierra (Flavors of my Land), and Chef Rafa’s Favorites, are the top categories on the menu.
But there are many items on Chef Rafa’s extensive menu, including: Chicken Empanadas, Stuffed Tostones, Volcano Fries, Chicharron de Pollo, Puerto Rican Tortas, Cubanos, BBQ Tri Tip Burgers, Marinated Crispy Pork Belly, and Mar y Tierra.
“My culture is a mix between Spain, African, and Daino Indians,” Chef Rafa Melenvez explains. “Our food and our music — everything comes from Spain and African culture. My intention here is to bring Puerto Rican food and make fusions between Puerto Rican, American, and Mexican Cuisine. I specialize in Caribbean Cuisine but also French and Italian. All my sauces are from scratch. Mostly everything we do here is from scratch.”
Chef Rafa has quite the cooking resume and the reputation to follow, having worked at the Branding Iron, and as an award-winning participant in the Concerned Mens Cook-Off for Education in 2015, 2017 and 2019. He led the competition one year with a First Place award for Appetizers and Salads, and Second Place in Desserts, Bread, and Entree.
“I moved to California from Puerto Rico 14 years ago in search of change,” Melendez said.
Once in the states, he began working in golf courses as a cook and worked up to become Executive Chef.
“My father used to have a kitchen called La Cosina de Rafa. I wanted to continue his legacy and that is why my restaurant is called Chef Rafa’s Kitchen. My family comes from a line of chefs on my dad’s side. We grew up cooking.”
Chef Rafa unfortunately suffered a stroke while working at the Branding Iron, but has not had that stop him from living on with his dream. He began offering catering services soon after, enlisting the help of his two sons, Ivan and Omar, while he recovered. Chef Rafa’s right hand is permanently paralyzed, and he now only cooks with his left hand.
“I have trained my sons for years now as cooks and chefs,” Chef Rafa explained. “Chef Omar is now Head Chef and Chef Ivan is Sous Chef.”
If there is anything Chef Rafa recommends on his menu to someone who has never tried Puerto Rican food, it is the Malfungo, and Chef Ivan seconds that.
“The Malfungo consists of fried green plantains that are then mashed with garlic and spices,” He explained. “We mix it with Spanish sauce and put it over shrimp, chicken, or pork, and a salad on the side. It’s full of real flavor! Our cuisine here is flavorful. You are not going to find any other Caribbean cuisine that blends with this kind of flavor.”
Chef Ivan recalls his mother and grandparents making the malfungo growing up. “It became a tradition and that is why we wanted to put it on our menu, so everyone can try it. It’s my favorite!”
The family had been preparing for a little over a month and a half to get the location ready for the public.
“We are really excited,” Chef Ivan said. “We have been working so hard every day. We have been planning to do this for a long time and I am so happy that its finally happening. I’m putting 100 percent into everything.”
“We started from the bottom, but we’ve created our image,” Chef Omar continued.
Black and white checkered tablecloths cover the tables that make up the restaurant floor. A small mason jar full of white pebbles, blue round glass, and coffee beans adorn each table. There’s a small palm tree and a Puerto Rican flag on top of each one. A colorful balloon arc made of the Puerto Rican flag colors frames a piano and drums.
Chef Rafa’s many awards and accomplishments are framed and displayed throughout the stage and walls that sits right next to the restaurants tables. The space is inviting and fit for an escape from Merced to the island of Puerto Rico.
For more information on the grand opening of Rafa’s Kitchen, you can call the restaurant at (209) 382-5452 or by email at: [email protected].