The unmistakable boom of chef Hector Santiago's voice calling out sandwich orders to his staff trickles out to the slanted sidewalk leading toward Poncey-Highland's Super Pan Latino Sandwich Shop (1057 Blue Ridge Ave., 404-477-0379, www.superpanlatinosandwichshop.com). The sounds and smells emanating from the tiny open kitchen cause the same excited anticipation you feel when hearing your beloved mother or grandmother banging about in the kitchen. You know you are in for something good.
After a brief stint on "Top Chef," Santiago quietly resumed his rounds at his famed pan-Latin restaurant, Pura Vida. Fans, who were enraged Santiago's cooking wasn't more appreciated on the popular Bravo show, waited in quiet anticipation to see what the talented chef would do next. Changes happened gradually at Pura Vida, with the addition of an insanely delicious and refined chicken burrito to the menu. Then, out of nowhere, Santiago appeared at the successful Atlanta Urban Picnic, organized by the Atlanta Street Food Coalition at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, slinging his burritos to a mob of his enthusiastic supporters.
Then, when Super Pan opened in July, came the "aha!" moment. Santiago and street food just make sense. The Puerto Rican-born chef is putting his mad-scientist creativity — and inspiration from his frequent gastro treks to Spain, South and Central America — to good use. Latin people have a longtime love affair with gut-busting fare between two pieces of bread. And sandwiches are the ideal vehicle for an innovative mind like Santiago's. As a result, Santiago looks happier than he has in years.
The menu at Super Pan is consistent and straightforward. You choose from sandwiches (aka "Superwiches"), sides, and an ever-changing assortment of daily specials (a side, one or two aguas frescas, a sandwich, and an empanada). Santiago's mad braising skills take the spotlight in the BBQ Rib Bolillo. A generous portion of fork-tender confit beef ribs seasoned with a Mayan adobo are stuffed into a crusty bolillo roll (made especially for Super Pan by the Bread Garden Bakery) and brightened with some julienned carrots, onions, and cilantro. A drizzle of the slightly spicy and acidic orange chipotle barbecue sauce ties the flavors together in one harmonious package.
Everyone loves a good Cuban sandwich, but a Media Noche (which translates as "midnight") wins out on flavor every time. Super Pan's Medio Dia (a play on words, since the spot only serves lunch) expands on Pura Vida's long-standing menu item. Except this version is slightly more sinful. Slow-roasted pork, Niman Ranch ham, gooey Swiss cheese, habañero mustard, and chayote pickles are tucked into an intensely yellow homemade pineapple "submarino" roll. But it's an unorthodox addition that takes this classic from good to swoon-worthy: a mind-blowing layer of chicharrón, or crackly pork skin.
Yet another sandwich nestles a fat piece of buttery, cured Berkshire pork belly coated in smoked pilon sugar into a pillow-soft coconut bun, garnished with bright pops of cilantro, cabbage, a little pickled aji coban "sambal," and tangy tamarind sauce. It's the kind of thing that sounds weird on the menu, but makes perfect sense once you bite into it. Always mindful of his vegetarian customers, the chef also makes a bun filed with smoked tofu and the same accouterments as the pork.
The empanadas are the one place where Super Pan needs to improve: The flaky crusts are often saturated with grease and the filling's juices.
It's safe to say that Super Pan is one of the most exciting eateries to open its doors this year. The food is hearty, creative, and most importantly, soul-satisfying. Eat here now.
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