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These are tough times for the Atlanta hospitality industry, with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordering the shutdown of bars and dine-in restaurants in the city. But takeout service is still permitted, along with alcohol to go, during what Bottoms termed “this temporary period.”
That turned out to be a bit of good news for chef Hector Santiago, who just opened El Burro Pollo in the Collective at Coda on West Peachtree Street in Midtown’s Tech Square.
Santiago, who is originally from Puerto Rico, is best known for his string of Atlanta restaurants, going back to his popular Poncey-Highland tapas bar, Pura Vida, and his “Top Chef” appearance in 2009. More recently, he opened a pair of El Super Pan Latino sandwich shops in Ponce City Market and The Battery — though those are both on hiatus during the shutdown.
El Burro Pollo is a spinoff of Santiago’s long-running Juarez-style burrito pop-up of the same name. And besides being designed for takeout and online ordering, it offers a cantina-style selection of beer, margaritas and house cocktails, such as the Santa Muerte, mixed with mezcal, Campari, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and lime.
Touted as “The original that started it all,” the El Burro Pollo is a grande burrito made with chile-marinated Springer Mountain chicken served on charred 10-inch wheat tortillas, and topped with cabbage and seasonal vegetable slaw, tomatillo, sour cream and chunky three-chile hot sauce.
But there’s lots more on the menu, including beef, pork and smoked tofu burritos, a pozole bowl with a choice of proteins, several Baja-style ceviches, and signature “Macho Nachos” with crunchy corn tortillas, queso sauce, charred veggies, cotija cheese and herbs, plus add-on grilled meat options.
There’s also an unusual home-style Mexican Sopa Seca Bowl, with shrimp and chicken meatballs and toasted pasta in a dried shrimp-guajillo broth, with peanuts and eggplant salsa molcajete.
The meandering multisided kiosk is decorated in bright colors that recall Mexican street food stands along the Baja California Peninsula. A series of windows with shutters reveal the order counter and an L-shaped area with four designated pickup stations. A small beachside-style bar must remain empty for the time being.
Last week, Santiago sat a safe 6 feet away outside the kiosk to talk about opening El Burro Pollo during such a troubling period.
Mainly, though, he just wanted to talk about the food. And Santiago was thrilled to see fellow Atlanta chef Todd Ginsberg (of the General Muir and Wood’s Chapel BBQ) up at the order counter grabbing a burrito. “It’s my second time this week,” Ginsberg said. “The original El Burro Pollo is the best.”
“It’s not easy,” Santiago said. “It’s craziness. But people are ordering takeout here, and we’re going to take that as far as we can. But let’s talk about El Burro Pollo. It used to be an item on the menu at Pura Vida, though it was a little bit different. The chicken and the three chiles are the secret. In Puerto Rico, our food is spiced but it’s not hot.
“When I went to visit my uncle in Mexico as a kid, they were living in Juarez. He’s Puerto Rican but his wife is Mexican and they had a little restaurant where they made these burritos with big, charred wheat four tortillas, and super-hot, slow-cooked meat inside. Just really delicious clean flavors, and that’s how we fashioned this one originally.”
As far as expanding the menu beyond burritos for a brick-and-mortar operation, Santiago said it was a fairly easy transition from the pop-up and his other restaurants.
“You feel like you need to bump it up and have a menu that’s going to appeal to a lot of people,” he said. “Still, like at Super Pan, the Cuban sells more than anything, and here the chicken burrito sells more than anything.
“So we did more items like the slow-cooked beef barbacoa and the pork with other flavors. We did a traditional corn flour tortilla quesadilla. And then we have the ceviches. But I love the Sopa Seca, which is like home food. I’ve never seen it in a restaurant. It’s almost like a bowl of ramen.”
As for the future of the concept, Santiago explained that when it’s safe to do so, customers will be able to order from touch screens, pay by credit card, then pick up food and drinks at designated windows.
“I designed the whole space and ai3 architecture helped at the end,” he said. “The whole idea at the beginning was to use two shipping containers, because I wanted to have that street feeling. But it’s basically the space of two containers, and it’s all very efficient.”
756 W. Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta. 470-312-4406, elburropollo.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at El Burro Pollo at the Collective in Midtown
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