Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Heating Up Miami with Southern-Inspired Latino Flare
What first inspired you to team up with your mother, Chef Libia, when forming Loba?
I originally wanted to be the finance guru in the family since my mom already had the chef talent. I graduated from the University of Florida in Economics, moved back home and at that time, my mom had sold all her restaurants. I started my own path in the banking world, I was a financial analyst for five years at an international bank, and in my fifth year, I didn't like what I was doing. There was no fulfillment so I listened to my heart rather than social norms guiding me.
Luckily, the international banking background provided me with a number of key contacts and I started my first business, a small real estate firm, which was just my mom and I, she dived into real estate first and I followed her. A year later, I made a lot of transactions, quite a bit of money, and I used those savings to start Loba with my mom. I wanted to continue to work with my mom, she’s my biggest role model and working with her has been a huge pleasure.
Loba is known for serving elevated Latin comfort food with a Southern twist. Can you please elaborate how your menus differ from other Latin offerings?
My parents are Colombian, I'm Colombian-American being born and raised in Miami, and I travelled a lot in my youth so I had a great admiration for Southern food and real American hearty cuisine. I found many similarities in both cultures; their priority is cooking food that warms the soul. Every culture has their comfort food but being raised here, I started to really enjoy burgers, ribs; the comfort American food that we all love.
As a result, I wanted to create a space that was really my home, and that's what Loba is. The food is what the American classics are to me and the Latin elevation comes with them. We’ve basically learned a way to make authentic Latin food approachable for everyone.
Describe the role flavor ingredients like spices, herbs and seasonings play in the cuisine you create. How does this differ in your various dish types?
We use a lot of fresh ingredients and blend them together; we're talking green peppers, red peppers and garlic to name a few. There's also a Colombian herb called guasca that is used to make the Ajiaco, which is chicken soup but very potato-forward with a bit of a thicker broth.
Besides the fresh vegetables blended together with vinegar, kosher salt and cracked pepper, we don't use as many spices as people might think. Generally, we stick to using the classics such as cumin, peppers and salts to bring the flavor to life in our dishes.
How does your location impact the expression of you menu/food?
I always wanted a neighborhood restaurant. In any city, restaurants actually have a huge real estate impact on the surrounding areas. Not only did I have to choose an area that was affordable for me personally but I also wanted to choose an area that would be a neighborhood and be sustained by that aspect rather than tourism.
We are currently in the MiMo (Miami Modern) district that has million dollar houses by the water on one side and under-developed, in-transition housing on the other side of the boulevard. It's a real mixture of two societies, a great blend of people and we have every type of cultural customer coming into Loba as a regular. I think that's a testament to how comfort food and any food you do from the heart will want to be tried by people from anywhere.
How do you balance your vision with your patron’s tastes?
It needs to make you feel good and things that make you feel good come from the heart. Someone in the back needs to really enjoy what they're doing and that comes forward on the plate, no matter what. Even if you don't like our Ajiaco, you're going to taste it and appreciate the different flavors; this soup takes about fourteen hours to make and the sincerity comes thru in the taste.
That goes for every other dish as well. Our menu is one page and at Loba, we really try to give you Latin flavor but also that comfort and unpretentious side. It's kind of rustic, you'll feel like you're in a log cabin when you come in and you're going to have things that you haven't tasted before that have these Latin roots with American inspiration.
Describe your signature flavor and dish. Have these changed since first starting out?
Our signature flavor at Loba revolves around home-style comfort food that pays tribute to Latin heritage by using authentic and fresh ingredients. Each bite glistens with a hint of spice and citrus.
The signature dish, I would say, is our Patacon, an artisan plantain that we make eleven inches long and is unique to Colombia. It comes accompanied by rice, pico de gallo, guacamole and rib-eye steak.
What flavors can we see coming to the center-of-the-plate at Loba in the future?
I cook a lot of vegetables at home and I want to start doing the same at Loba. I want our patrons who eat meat to fall in love with our vegetables.
In Miami, we have amazing agriculture; our harvest season is November - April, it's spectacular. Fresh and local ingredients change the taste to any dish in the best, most refreshing way.