Isla Verde Is Bringing Puerto Rican Food to Parker, Colorado | Westword

Isla Verde Is Bringing Puerto Rican Food and Culture to an Unlikely Suburb

"There are people who have never had anything like this before, and they tell me they will do whatever it takes for us not to leave from here."
Jose Rivera and Karen Reyes opened Isla Verde in January 2023.
Jose Rivera and Karen Reyes opened Isla Verde in January 2023. Helen Xu
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After decades of dreaming and saving their money, Jose Rivera  and his wife, Karen Reyes, debuted Isla Verde in Parker, bringing Puerto Rican flavors and culture to the suburb — which isn't exactly known for having a diverse dining scene.

Both Rivera and Reyes were born and raised in Puerto Rico and came from families with food ventures of their own. Reyes grew up helping her grandmother run a dessert and pastry catering business in Coamo, Puerto Rico, while Rivera worked at his father’s beachfront restaurant as a chef and server throughout his childhood and into college. That's where the couple met, when Reyes came in to dine.

They started dating when they were both eighteen years old and attending the University of Puerto Rico; Rivera was studying psychology, and Reyes was studying hospital administration.

When Hurricane Georges swept through the island in September 1998, it destroyed his father’s restaurant, so Rivera decided to visit his cousin in Denver. He landed in the States in February 1999, got a job and started making money. But he missed Reyes, so in December of that year, he flew back to Puerto Rico and proposed. They got married the following April and started culinary school together.

The couple's first food business was called K&J Cuisine. The cafeteria-style establishment predominantly delivered lunches to nearby office workers. The business was going well, but when their oldest child turned five, they decided it was time to return to the mainland.
click to enlarge exterior of a restaurant with a front patio
Isla Verde has a patio for outdoor dining on sunny days.
Helen Xu
“We just wanted to give them the opportunity to have a really good education, to learn English, to have more opportunities,” explains Rivera. So they moved their family of five to Denver, “but always with the dream of doing the same thing we were doing back home. We really wanted to open a business, but it wasn’t that easy with no knowledge, no resources. So we started working in the industry.”

Rivera picked up jobs as a chef, working at a French restaurant at the airport, various hospitals, hotels and retirement homes. His longest stint was at Panda Express. “I got a lot of experience there; it was awesome,” he says. “Panda taught me a lot — management, the discipline that you've gotta have. The way they organize, the way they run their business is just amazing.”

Meanwhile, Reyes worked as a kindergarten teacher in Commerce City. One summer, she was walking with her sixteen-year-old daughter near Cuba Bakery & Cafe in Aurora and saw a "Now Hiring" sign. She encouraged her daughter to apply for a summer job, but when she refused, Reyes recalls thinking, “Well, I’m going to take it, then.”

She started part-time, but it wasn’t long until she quit her teaching job to work at Cuba Bakery full-time; Rivera eventually joined her there. The couple became close friends with owner Orlando Colome and spent eight years working for him. In 2020, Colome decided to add a second location, Havana Bakery in Parker.

Shortly after, though, an opportunity to sell the original Cuba Bakery came along. Facing some health issues, Colome ultimately opted for early retirement and also sold the Parker location in 2022.
click to enlarge a restaurant menu
The menu at Isla Verde includes build-your-own plates.
Helen Xu
It turned out to be the perfect opportunity for Rivera and Reyes. After initially getting outbid by another buyer, they were finally able to secure the building when that buyer became overwhelmed with running a restaurant business.

“Parker is the place that we always looked up to live over here,” says Rivera. "For the last twenty years, since the kids were little, we would bring them to the Parker Days Festival, to the farmers' market, because it was kind of that place that I would look around and I would say, ‘One day I’m going to have my restaurant here.’”

Isla Verde officially opened in January 2023. The sit-down restaurant specializes in traditional Puerto Rican comfort food such as la tripleta (a sandwich with steak, chicken and ham topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato and chimichurri), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), roasted pork, chicharrón, carne frita (deep-fried pork chops) and a customer favorite, lechon asado (Cuban roast pork). It also dishes up Cubano sandwiches, a specialty at Cuba Bakery.

Rivera's favorite depends on the day. “Today it's cloudy; it’s almost about to rain," he says, "so it’s got to be sancocho,” a hearty soup that Isla Verde makes with chicken, ham, beef and pork as well as corn on the cob and starchy vegetables including yuca, yautía, malanga root and potatoes. “You've just gotta let it boil and then simmer for the longest time you can, and you're gonna let it thicken, and all those flavors get together. If you eat that, the next thing you need is a bed or a hammock,” Rivera notes, laughing.

For Reyes, it’s all about the beef shank rib. "The sauce is really good," she says. "It’s not short rib — when you see it, it’s not short," she adds, holding her hands about a foot apart. It’s served with a rosemary demi-glace, roasted potatoes and carrots.

“We make everything here fresh. You won’t find a box inside, like we take something out of the box and serve it. No, nothing,” Rivera says. “It’s not a place that you’re going to come and sit down and start eating in ten minutes. But I know if you have a little patience and wait 20, sometimes 25 minutes, you’re going to eat something amazing.”
click to enlarge a bakery case filled with empanadas and pastries.
Isla Verde's bakery case is filled with grab-and-go empanadas and pastries.
Helen Xu
For diners who are in a hurry, Isla Verde has a bakery case filled with empanadas and pastries that are a popular grab-and-go option, especially for mothers on pick-up duty at the nearby high school. The restaurant originally offered four empanada flavors but has expanded, adding varieties such as mushroom, ropa vieja, spinach and cheese, pizza, spicy Buffalo and chorizo.

It was a risk to open a Latin restaurant in a town that, according to Data USA, is 76 percent Caucasian. During its first year, say Rivera and Reyes, many of Isla Verde's customers were trying Puerto Rican food for the first time — and assumed it would be similar to Tex-Mex. “It was very hard, because you’re just trying to break the ice," Rivera recalls. "Like any other business, at the beginning, it’s going to be a roller coaster."

In addition to sharing Puerto Rican food with the community, it’s been important for Rivera and Reyes to shine a light on their culture's music. The dining room is always filled with the sounds of salsa music, and Isla Verde hosts live music once a month as well as salsa lessons — the next class will take place on June 15.

After a year and a half in business, the owners say that the Parker community has embraced the restaurant.

"There are people who have never had anything like this before, and they tell me they will do whatever it takes for us not to leave from here,” Rivera says. “Just having the opportunity to eat this kind of food, which is usually more in Latino suburbs or South Beach, Miami, and places where you’re going to see more Hispanics, they’re loving it. So I think we nailed it.”

Isla Verde is located at 19757 Pikes Peak Avenue in Parker and is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday. On June 22, it will be hosting the Bids & Beats silent auction fundraiser event for the Boredom Fighters, which helps kids get access to music production. For more information, visit
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