For Puerto Rican chef, crisis is flashback to Hurricane Maria

Owner of Porch Light Latin Kitchen dishes up Caribbean specialties in Smyrna

Soon after Hurricane Maria swept through his native Puerto Rico in September 2017, Atlanta chef Andre Gomez spearheaded efforts here to collect and transport critical supplies to residents of the island.

The meal I ordered from Porch Light Latin Kitchen was a fiesta: Beef burrito, chicken burrito, beer can chicken, can can pork chop, rice and beans, sofrito mac and cheese and street corn. Both burritos held up well to transportation. The beer can chicken and can can pork chop were as good at home as when served at the restaurant. And there were enough leftovers for two more meals. These are not your average rice and beans. With just three to four side dishes available, order them all. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
The meal I ordered from Porch Light Latin Kitchen was a fiesta: Beef burrito, chicken burrito, beer can chicken, can can pork chop, rice and beans, sofrito mac and cheese and street corn. Both burritos held up well to transportation. The beer can chicken and can can pork chop were as good at home as when served at the restaurant. And there were enough leftovers for two more meals. These are not your average rice and beans. With just three to four side dishes available, order them all. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Some two and a half years later, another crisis has hit, this time affecting not only his beloved Puerto Rico but the entire world and his own backyard in Smyrna.

“For me, it was déjà vu,” said Gomez.

As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, Gomez is again heeding a call to action. This time, he’s finding ways to keep the lights on at Porch Light Latin Kitchen, to keep his staff employed and to keep residents in Smyrna fed.

Porch Light Latin Kitchen chef-owner Andre Gomez stands at the entrance to his Smyra restaurant. Gomez has been heartened by the support from his customers has been, some who order from him multiple times a week. “There’s this sense of community. There’s that sense of hope to keep you motivated," he said. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Porch Light Latin Kitchen chef-owner Andre Gomez stands at the entrance to his Smyra restaurant. Gomez has been heartened by the support from his customers has been, some who order from him multiple times a week. “There’s this sense of community. There’s that sense of hope to keep you motivated," he said. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

He recalled the pit in his stomach when he had to cease dine-in service in mid-March. “I was in a bad place thinking about my business — all the dreams of providing for yourself and others,” he said. “I am unhappy right now, but what makes me happy is cooking and touching other people, in a way. I can keep people working.”

You can still get your fill of Porch Light Latin Kitchen’s empanadas, which are available for pickup if you call ahead. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
You can still get your fill of Porch Light Latin Kitchen’s empanadas, which are available for pickup if you call ahead. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

He’s only able to offer work to half of his 18-person staff, providing them with 15-to-20-hour shifts a week.

Considering the size of his pared-down team and the limited availability of certain food items, Gomez has scaled down his dinner-only takeout menu to just five or six main dishes and three or four sides. Some menu items, like Gomez's popular crispy pork plantain empanadas, beer can chicken, beans and rice, and sofrito mac and cheese, are staples. Others, despite their popularity, rotate, including the mammoth Can Can Pork Chop, based on what he can source. "I can't get pork chops after this week," he said. "Last week, I got a great deal on rib-eyes."

Make dinner a fiesta with 32-ounce, ready-made cocktails from Porch Light Latin Kitchen. The restaurant offers three to four cocktails each day. Each quart is $18. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Make dinner a fiesta with 32-ounce, ready-made cocktails from Porch Light Latin Kitchen. The restaurant offers three to four cocktails each day. Each quart is $18. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

He noted how difficult sourcing has been using some of his regular suppliers. "Inland Seafood goes everywhere in the Southeast. Now they are only sending out three trucks a day. Buckhead Beef sends out 12 trucks on a Friday. They are only sending out three. You see how this has affected the industry, the supply chain. The drivers I used to see every day — I don't know when I'm going to see them again."

When I pulled into the parking lot at Porch Light, Gomez was standing outside, waving goodbye to a customer who’d come to pick up an order.

The restaurant writes messages of thanks and hope on its takeout boxes. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
The restaurant writes messages of thanks and hope on its takeout boxes. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

He turned to greet me, and, from a safe 6-foot distance, told me how heartening the support from his customers has been, some who order from him multiple times a week. “There’s this sense of community. There’s that sense of hope to keep you motivated.”

Inside the restaurant, assistant manager Carla Dolores was busy assembling the last of the day’s orders.

“It’s like we created a distribution center,” Gomez said, pointing to the tables that had been pushed together for a makeshift assembly line. After the food (batched, ready-made cocktails, too!) is prepared, it is packaged in to-go boxes and plastic lidded containers, labeled and stacked in groups. One by one, tickets are filled, with orders going into plastic bags, tagged, and moved to the front of the restaurant to await pickup.

“It’s like we created a distribution center,” Gomez said, pointing to the tables that had been pushed together for a makeshift assembly line. After the food is prepared, it is packaged in to-go boxes and plastic lidded containers, labeled and stacked in groups. One by one, tickets are filled, with orders going into plastic bags, tagged, and moved to the front of the restaurant to await pickup. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
“It’s like we created a distribution center,” Gomez said, pointing to the tables that had been pushed together for a makeshift assembly line. After the food is prepared, it is packaged in to-go boxes and plastic lidded containers, labeled and stacked in groups. One by one, tickets are filled, with orders going into plastic bags, tagged, and moved to the front of the restaurant to await pickup. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

“Every week, we’ve gotten better and better at it,” Gomez said of having to shift from a full-service dining operation to a takeout model. Day one, he said, was chaos. “I had one phone number. It was off the chain. By 2:30 p.m., we ran out of food. The second day, I put my cellphone out there. And then my manager’s. You adapt, you get better at it,” he said.

He’s learned to control the flow of traffic — which helps his team and physical distancing among customers — by giving patrons a dedicated pickup time. In essence, he’s applying the idea behind seated reservations to a takeout scenario.

An order of a chicken burrito holds up well to travel. Pair it with a tropical Porch Pounder cocktail (left), featuring multiple rums with pineapple juice. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
An order of a chicken burrito holds up well to travel. Pair it with a tropical Porch Pounder cocktail (left), featuring multiple rums with pineapple juice. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Gomez followed me — from a safe distance — as I brought my order to my car. He thanked me for coming.

“Seguimos,” he said, before turning to greet the next customer.

Seguimos. We’ll continue. Yes, we will.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Do you have feedback about the new column? We want to hear from you. Send your comments to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

PORCH LIGHT LATIN KITCHEN

Menu: Abbreviated menu of the Puerto Rican restaurant's most popular appetizers, entrees and sides

Alcohol: Selection of 32-ounce batched, ready-made cocktails, beer and wine

What I ordered: Beef burrito, chicken burrito, beer can chicken, Can Can Pork Chop, rice and beans, sofrito mac and cheese, street corn, quart of Porch Pounder cocktails (featuring multiple rums with pineapple juice). This meal was a fiesta. Both burritos held up well to transportation. The beer can chicken and Can Can Pork Chop were as good at home as when served at the restaurant. And there were enough leftovers for two more meals. These are not your average rice and beans. With just three to four side dishes available, order them all. Make it a fiesta: Throw in a cocktail.

Service options: Order by phone, pay by credit card, pickup only. No cash payments or tips. No delivery.

Safety protocols: Kitchen and staff adhering to all COVID-19 health and safety precautions. They wear gloves, wash hands and sanitize often. Maximum two customers allowed inside at any given time. Staggered pickup times to help physical distancing among patrons. Sterilized pens for credit card payments. Curbside pickup available.

Address, phone: 300 Village Green Circle, Smyrna. 678-309-9858

Hours: Menu posted on restaurant's Facebook page daily by 11 a.m. Place orders between 1-3 p.m. Pickup between 5 and 7 p.m. (customers are provided a designated pickup time) Wednesdays-Saturdays.

Websiteporchlightlatinkitchen.com.

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