Ricardo Soni came from Mexico to the United States when he was 16: first to Long Island, then later with wife Claudia, son Nathan (18), daughter Ari (14) and stepson Angel (9) to Newport News.
“In New York, a lot of people liked Colombian restaurants,” Soni says.
Claudia is Colombian and the closest Colombian restaurants the family could find were in Richmond and Virginia Beach. They visited the Richmond location frequently. They were inspired to open a Colombian restaurant, but Claudia did not know how to cook well. Instead, they opened ROSA Mexicano with a partner in 2021. They struggled at the beginning, which led to his partner’s decision to sell out.
About this time, the Soni family met Colombian native and restauranteur, Oscar Parra, his wife Laura — and their dog. “We had a party at the park for my cousin’s birthday,” Soni explains. “That’s where we first met Laura and her Yorkshire terrier. We remember her as The Girl with the Annoying Dog.”
And this is where Colombian and Mexican cuisine met. After the available partnership was posted on Facebook, Oscar and Laura came to the restaurant. Soni recognized the couple from the park.
Before moving to the United States, Oscar owned restaurants in Colombia, but lost them during the COVID-19 pandemic. His father owns a 200- to 400-seat restaurant in Colombia. “Inspired by Oscar’s history, we decided to switch from a Mexican to a Colombian restaurant because it was a chance to be new in the area,” says Soni, a commercial fisherman by trade.
Soni and Parra’s restaurant is called ROSA Colombian Bar & Grill, named for the rose (ROSA) because it’s a romantic flower and because they thought people could identify with it. In the beginning, they reached out to the Spanish community, which was easiest. The Parras started “The Colombians in Newport News” group on WhatsApp, where members help each other by letting people know what they can find and how they can help. The group brings more Colombians to ROSA to learn about Columbian traditions. And on Wednesday nights the restaurant hosts karaoke night.
“It’s been difficult getting American customers,” Soni says. “Everybody knows Mexican food, but they don’t know what Colombian food is like.” Soni finds that many Americans are not aware of the distinction between Mexican, Salvadoran, Colombian or Costa Rican food. “They think Colombian food is just a branch of Mexican food,” he says. “I tell them it’s like the difference between Japanese, Chinese and Korean food.”
Colombian tamales are three to four times larger than Mexican tamales, They each weigh about a pound and are served with chicken, pork, beef and a boiled egg and carrot. It’s a great combination. We also have Mexican tamales.
One of the most popular dishes is the lechona, a traditional Colombian dish made with pork, vegetables and spices. It is only prepared every 15 days due to the time-consuming preparation of the dish and the eight-hour cooking time. Parra recommends calling ahead to request this entrée.
ROSA’s is also a great steakhouse. People really like the Churrasco, a grilled steak,” Soni adds. The restaurant also offers vegetarian and seafood selections on its menu.
“I like to meet and talk with people,” Soni says. “That’s part of the real Colombian experience, hanging out with people who don’t speak English.”
Claudia uses the phrase Savor de mi Tierra (Taste of My Land) when referring to ROSA’s food. “My mother-in-law, my father and my husband work here,” she says. “We try to give customers a family fellowship. Many people say they can taste Colombia in our food,” she says.
Parra works hard as head of the kitchen. “Oscar hasn’t had a free day since we started,” Soni says. “I help him when I can, but I’m outside at the register, greeting customers, taking calls and cleaning.”
ROSA celebrates Colombian holidays at the restaurant. At Christmas, they celebrated Candles Day. Everybody lit a candle and left it outside for Christmas wishes.
TO THE POINT:
ROSA Colombian Bar & Grill
Address: 12715 Warwick Blvd., J, Newport News, VA 23606
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com