We were surprised to find Porch Light Latin Kitchen full on a Tuesday night.
It is a small restaurant on the north side of Smyrna Market Village, a bland-looking outdoor mall. None of us was expecting much. The weather was too cold to wait outside, so it looked like the four of us were going to be stuck in that awkward zone: standing between a beverage case, a host stand and the front door, twiddling our thumbs and hoping for a table to open up.
It could’ve been a drag, but the host offered to take our drink order, the chef introduced himself, and soon enough we were drinking soft-serve margaritas while watching chef Andre Gomez describe the cut of his pork chop by spreading his hands from his back, across his ribs, and onto his own round belly. It was such a warm welcome, I thought for a second that I’d been spotted as a food critic.
Perhaps I was, but it quickly became apparent that it would not have made a difference. That night, Gomez seemed to greet everyone who came through his door, and delivered as many dishes as humanly possible, all while keeping one eye on his kitchen line and the other on the mood of his customers. He told stories to one table, described dishes to another, delivered drinks to yet another.
Over the evening, I saw several customers shake his hand on the way out, honestly happy to have met him. Gomez is one of the most genuinely gifted practitioners of warm hospitality I’ve witnessed. As it turns out, his food is pretty great, too.
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That night, we started with the pork cheek empanadas, deeply savory shredded pork meat encased in crunchy handmade plantain dough. With a smear of the accompanying bright avocado aioli, they become a creamy, meaty delight.
Next was a plate of conch fritters, light balls of mostly dough, dressed with a spicy, mustardy remoulade and a crunchy chayote squash slaw.
We ordered a small plate of four ribs, one for each person at the table, and received a plate befitting a top-notch barbecue joint: tender, fall-off-the-bone meat seasoned with a cumin rub and slightly fruity sweet sauce. I believe we were all regretting such a small order — I could’ve been happy with a full rack — until the pork chop arrived.
It was as Gomez described: a massive thing stretching from the bone-in side of the loin through the ribs and into the fatty, skin-on belly. This cut is called a “can can” in Puerto Rico, Gomez explained, because the long curve of meat resembles the flamboyant wave of a woman’s dress mid-dance.
Gomez uses heritage pork (Cheshire White hogs from North Carolina, if you’re curious) and so the loin meat is a little tougher than average, a fact that is more than made up for by a depth of flavor and juicy fattiness that blows away your average chop. We crunched through the crisp skin, luxuriated in the fatty bites, gnawed every morsel off the bone. No bite was left behind.
With a few sides — fried tostones, grilled creamy corn, a couple of tacos — we had a feast.
This style of lovingly prepared, big, stunning meat is the kind of trick that I’m used to seeing in fancy steakhouses. So, I was not surprised to learn that Gomez formerly served as the chef de cuisine of Kevin Rathbun Steak. He grew up in Puerto Rico and got his first cooking lessons from his grandparents.
At lunch, I was surprised to find Gomez behind the line, putting just as much enthusiasm and polish into his sandwiches. The pressed cohiba is a creamy spin on a Cuban sandwich, full of smoky chopped pork shoulder, gooey gruyere and a mojo-spiked mustard. The triple torta is a brisket-filled sandwich bomb topped with strips of house-cured bacon and a runny egg.
I’ll pause my breathless adoration for just one moment to admit I was on the fence between two and three stars for Porch Light. There are plenty of places in Atlanta with more sophisticated cocktail programs, more technically impressive dishes, more carefully appointed dining rooms.
There are slight missteps at Porch Light, too. The otherwise excellent elements of the mofongo can add up to be a little too salty; our mahi tacos were a little underseasoned — that sort of thing.
The difference is that Porch Light is a much better restaurant than it needs to be, more fun and generous, more interesting, more delicious. The place excels on its own terms.
I don’t mean to say that Gomez is aiming for some kind of regional authenticity, though. Porch Light doesn’t really remind me of any the meals I’ve had in San Juan, nor of Casa Adela, my favorite Puerto Rican restaurant in New York.
And, while the influence of Southern barbecue and the precision of American steakhouse cooking are clearly visibly, none of the dishes at Porch Light smack of high concept “this-meets-that” culinary fusion. No, Gomez seems to be simply cooking the food he knows the best way he knows how, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the most authentic thing any chef can do.
It is an impressive accomplishment for a young chef’s first restaurant. Atlantans, take note of chef Andre Gomez. I believe you’ll be talking about him for a long time.