WEST WARWICK — The aroma of fresh herbs and spices lingers outside a new eatery on Providence Street, steeping West Warwick with a hint of Dominican flavor.
“When I’m cooking, I’m mixing the different seasonings together, I always wait for that dance—that joyful, ‘that’s so good’ feeling,” Julia Arias said Tuesday. “It’s not overpowering and leaves you wanting more. That’s what I strive for.”
Arias, her husband Elias Rodriguez, and friends Pablo and Samantha Gonzalez last week officially opened the doors to La Casita. And while each of the partners comes from a different cultural background—Arias is Dominican, Rodriguez is Puerto Rican, Pablo Gonzalez is Guatemalan and his wife Samantha is Cambodian—the cuisine they’re serving up at La Casita is undeniably Dominican.
Born out of the owners’ friendship and a desire to bring good Spanish food to the area, La Casita had been a project in the works for quite some time before it finally opened last Thursday.
“Eli’s basically one of my best friends, and his wife [Arias] is an excellent cook,” Pablo Gonzalez recalled the restaurant’s genesis. “Every time we went to his house she would make great food.”
Arias had always enjoyed cooking for her friends, many of whom prior to meeting her had never tasted Dominican food.
“And they’d be like, ‘oh my god, how you did this? You need to sell this,’” she said, taking a brief break from cooking. “And it just started like that, at our dining room table talking about, ‘yeah, maybe we should.’”
For more than a year, the couples tossed around the idea of opening a restaurant, initially considering Rodriguez’ and Arias’ home in Warwick as its location.
“‘La Casita’ means ‘the little house,’” Gonzalez explained. “We were thinking of doing it out of their house, serving really good, home-cooked meals.”
Originally from the Dominican Republic, Arias learned to cook the foods of her upbringing from her mother. And although Arias and her family moved to New York when she was in the fifth grade, every so often when she samples her dishes, the flavors bring her back.
“I’ll say, ‘ooh, this tastes like my aunt’s beans,’” she said, “or sometimes it’s like, ‘oh, my grandmother used to make her rice this way.’”
But despite having a similar cooking style to her family’s, Arias said that over the years she’s developed her own flair.
Dominican food is like other Caribbean cuisines in several ways, Arias said. Rice and beans are staples, for example, and the kinds of meat served—pork, chicken, beef—is the same as in many Caribbean nations.
“But we focus more on using cilantro and peppers and onions and everything’s chopped up,” she added. “But that’s the key—natural stuff. That’s what really makes the difference.”
Eating Dominican food, Rodriguez added, is a “whole experience.”
“With different foods you expect different things,” he said. “With Dominican food, you come in with the expectation of a lot of flavor, a lot of color—it’s joyful.”
All that has been translated into the way the small restaurant has been decorated, as well. Sunlight pours through wide windows and bounces off bright orange and red walls; at the center of each table, colorful flowers are displayed in a vase.
“A lot of the houses in Dominican Republic are colored like this,” Arias said, looking around at the walls. “Of course we modernized it with some of the decor, but just having those colors underneath kind of makes you feel like you’re in the Caribbean.”
And although the original plan to build the business out of Arias’ and Rodriguez’ house didn’t work out, the space they ended up at is filled with cozy details reminiscent of home. Along one wall, a collection of art shares messages like “home is where our story begins” and “this kitchen is for dancing.”
When the idea to open a restaurant selling her cooking was first floated, Arias admitted she’d been somewhat hesitant. But now, those nerves have all but disappeared.
“My friends gave me that confidence,” she said, “like, ‘girl, your food is worth selling.’”
The plan from the beginning, Rodriguez added, was to introduce a dining option that was both affordable and that offered variety.
“We saw that we could fill that void in West Warwick,” he said. “We haven’t even advertised much, but because there was a need for those two things—variety and economical—I think people were just drawn to it immediately.”
Indeed, less than a week after opening the doors to La Casita, things seem to be going pretty well for the fledgling business.
“We were shocked at first,” said Arias, who added that they actually ran out of food on their first day open. “So now, it’s like, we’ve gotta keep that rice coming, gotta keep that food coming.”
But it’s a learning experience, she said, adding that she’s thankful to have already established a few regular customers at the restaurant.
“So far, West Warwick has received us very well, and we’re grateful for that,” she continued. “We’re just in awe of the welcoming we’ve received.”
La Casita, located at 53 Providence St., West Warwick, is open for take out and dining in Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.