August marks the one-year anniversary of RJ’s Latin & American Grill in Mastic Beach, and Rafael Rojas, a longtime chef who has cooked at fine-dining establishments around Long Island, is proud of the occasion.
“I looked up and the year went by. I didn’t even realize it. I’m excited that I’m still here a year later,” said Rojas, 42, of Mastic, a first-time owner who decided to give it a shot while working immediately across the street at the former Valentino’s pizzeria. “I’m still learning every day.”
RJ’s is located at 524 Mastic Road, formerly home to TJ’s Hero Shop.
The Basic Fix
Rojas, who was born in Brooklyn but lived for a time in Puerto Rico, where his family is from, said he tailored RJ’s menu to be a mix of classic Latin food like quesadillas, burritos and empanadas, with some American favorites like hot-pressed sandwiches and wraps.
“I didn’t want to do something specific,” Rojas said. “I wanted to do a more Americanized version of Spanish food and use my flavors from Puerto Rico to kick it up a notch. You’re going to taste all of that in the food.”
While Rojas has cooked various ethnic cuisines, he decided to go the Latin-American fusion route based on both his own family background and his feeling of what the community would appreciate.
“I noticed Taco Bell’s always packed. So I said, ‘Maybe something like that, but a little higher end and with better quality food.’”
The most popular selection is the steak burrito, which includes marinated steak, sauteed onions and fresh guacamole for $8.99.
The Fully Loaded Nachos and the “Land and Sea” combo, a mix of fried shrimp, grilled steak, guacamole and more, are close seconds. They “fly out the door,” Rojas said.
Mario Adamita, a frequent customer, says he likes how the burrito is “toasted for you so it doesn’t fall apart. That’s huge. You can also see what’s going on. He cooks it all right in front of you.” His family enjoys the food as well: “My daughter likes the beef burrito and the vegetarian burrito.”
Broad experience, new challenges
Starting out as a 14-year-old dishwasher in a restaurant with his uncle, he eventually went on to cooking at fine-dining restaurants like the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook and Pace’s Steakhouse in Port Jefferson. He then did catering for places like the Crystal Swan Catering House in Medford.
Before becoming a restaurant owner, he also traveled to places like Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico, where he was able to learn about different cooking techniques and cultures.
One of the challenges that Rojas says he faces now as an owner that he didn’t before is keeping a meticulous eye on every end of the business, like food costs, building management and what people say on social media — because bad recommendations can do a lot of harm.
One recent case in which Rojas turned around a potentially negative experience is after someone received the incorrect order. The customer didn’t get the steak fajita she ordered. She didn’t call to complain, but Rojas knew about it, and when he met the woman at her job while going to buy something there, he insisted that he owed her the next time around. The customer shared the experience on Facebook, saying it was something he didn’t have to do. “Hands down, great man.”
The response? Hundreds of positive reactions and dozens of comments.
“I try to do right by the customer,” Rojas said. “If they point something out that could be better, that’s what I’ll work with.”
To give back, the restaurant participates in community events like William Floyd High School’s annual “Taste of The Town” and local sports events.
One common misconception is that Rojas named RJ’s after himself. While he is, in fact, Raphael Rojas Jr., his 18-year-old son is called RJ in the family. But Rojas doesn’t correct people in the community when they call him RJ.
RJ’s has an open kitchen, with Rojas preparing everything in front of customers, who can see the colorful assortment of ingredients, his speedy cooking techniques and even the flurry of fire from the cooking pans.
“Everything done here is from scratch. To me, it makes a big difference,” Rojas said. “They’re watching me put the food together right in front of them. You can just reach over and say, ‘Hey, can you give me a little more onions?’”
Looking ahead, Rojas said he’s looking to do more catering, even beyond the Latin and American cuisines. And he’s pleased with how things have gone.
“They say the first year or two is the hardest. If that’s the case, I’m happy, and hopefully, there’s better to come. I made it through the first year.”
RJ’s Latin & American Grill
p dir=”ltr”>524 Mastic Road, Mastic Beach
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.