Besides my belief that he is one of the five best chefs working in Atlanta today, what I love most about Hector Santiago is the way he tinkers with things. Instead of renovating his Poncey-Highland restaurant, Pura Vida, in one chunk, the Top Chef alum took six months to build a basement dining room himself. He also reframed the kitchen, moved an awkward door leading to a hallway, and, most recently, started both a weekday sandwich shop on-site and a weekend burrito stand in the parking lot across the street.
Before Pura Vida, Atlanta had experienced tapas only as straightforward nibbles unlikely to make or break a chef’s career. And Santiago, a Puerto Rican native easily spotted for his raven-black goatee and ponytail, wasn’t always a bold, iconoclastic chef. An early career in forgettable restaurants such as Deux Plex and Roswell’s Public House showed little distinction. When he opened Pura Vida in 2001, his take on Latin cuisine was cautiously traditional. Deep in his heart, though, raged a passion for experimentation. He started traveling—to Spain, where he did stints under the great Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and the magically gifted Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, and to South America, where he absorbed a vast repertoire of home-cooked dishes he would eventually transmute into miraculous small plates.
Since the restaurant opened, Santiago has taken us on a joyride where marinated tuna loin, coffee nibs, pickled garlic, habanero and sour orange “caviar,” and tapioca flakes conduct love affairs on the plate. He creates a world where oils are flavored with cilantro and avocado, pork jus is made into foam, and lobster is paired with plantain “tater tots.” Diners experience the thrills of alchemy tempered by humor.
Under Santiago, the humble sandwich becomes a flavor bomb. At the new Super Pan (open for lunch only and accessible through a side door), he can be seen placing finishing touches on steamed coconut buns with sugar-cured pork belly, tangy tamarind sauce, shaved cabbage, cilantro, and pickled chiles. I may never have seen or tasted a more beautiful hand-held treat than his Medio Dia, made with crispy adobo-roasted Berkshire pork, Niman Ranch ham, chayote pickles, Swiss, and clove salt on a pineapple submarine roll wrapped in banana leaf. On Saturday and Sunday, Santiago drags tables and chairs across the street and sets up a stand called Burro Pollo, where he composes splendid steamed chicken burritos flavored with aji peppers. And on Sundays at Pura Vida, he serves his three-course Cena Latina, celebrating rice dishes from around the world, for $19 per person.
My passion for Pura Vida has only increased with the years. I am often enraged at the lack of national recognition for a chef whose talent eclipses many of his clannish peers. puravidatapas.com
Photograph by Jason Maris