My husband and I used to go to Pura Vida anytime we had something to celebrate. Hector Santiago’s late great pan-Latin tapas joint was dusky and sexy and noisy and spicy, but, above all else, it was deliciously festive. You couldn’t help but dance in your seat at Pura Vida, even as you weighed yourself down with deep-fried goodies.
The rest of the country didn’t see that joyful side of Santiago when he competed on “Top Chef” some years back. In the Bravo kitchen, he seemed somewhat brooding and befuddled, and he was eliminated early. This is a chef, it seems, who thrives in his own element.
At El Super Pan in Ponce City Market, it feels like Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, is right at home.
More than that. The guy is pretty much throwing us a house party every day. Part of the festivities are announced from a chalkboard propped on a chair beneath a corrugated tin awning. It’s scrawled messily with “Bebidas!!!” and, one Sunday afternoon, these included a sophisticated and very strong blood orange margarita and its frothy opposite, a pineapple daiquiri.
Everything about the stall, from the fedora-wearing kitchen workers to the scruffy wood plank El Super Pan sign, is art-directed like this, and the result is incredibly charming. The food, even more so.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we could feel Santiago’s exuberance in the Lomo y Lomito, a recent dinner special. It was there in the generous tumble of arugula and ripples of succulent cured pork and tenderloin, in the casual smear of aromatic green garlic aioli and dots of a lurid red, flavor-saturated pimento reduction, all loaded onto a salty, delicate nigella seed cracker.
This is Super Pan we’re talking about, so you want to know about the sandwiches. They are spectacularly detailed and groaningly good, particularly if you order one of the hot and toasty pressed ones, and maybe skip the prepackaged sandwiches in the refrigerated case next to the cash register, convenient though they are.
Of course, there’s a Cuban. Two of them, in fact. One is a mostly traditional press of ham, pork, pickles and Swiss, with the addition of salami, on pan Cubano. My only quibble with this version is that it wasn’t pressed quite enough to make for a melded and melty bundle.
I know it’s heresy to say, but I think the vegetarian version, the Farm Cubano, is even better than the meaty one. Its bread is flaky, almost pastry-like, with a golden sheen of olive oil that saturates the crust, infusing it with luxurious flavor. Inside is a smash of eggplant and other roasted veggies that are rich but not oil-slicked. There’s a sweetness to the assemblage, but it’s cut perfectly by a crisp layer of fresh bitter greens.
Speaking of bitter greens, and for that matter, speaking of pastry, you must get the flaky little parcels that are the pastelillitos, in particular the one stuffed with a buttery stew of sweet pork belly and tendrils of spicy greens. Pair one of these porky pockets with a bacon fat shortbread cookie dotted with guava jelly and you’ve got El Super Pan’s strongest dessert. I’ll take these over the assorted flans, which, though aromatic, could be smoother.
It’s the little details that make the meals here, like that tart button of guava in the Piggie Cookie or the floral sweetness of almond-date spread dancing with salty Serrano ham in a Pan de Jamon y Queso.
I also love the whiff of coconut that hits my nose with each bite into an Asian-inflected steamed coconut bun stuffed with pork belly. The belly in this sandwich is firmer and more meaty than the buttery belly in the pastelillitos, which is just as it should be. Meanwhile, the bread itself is fluffy and flavorful, without a bit of the gumminess that often afflicts steamed buns.
Lest this gush get embarrassing, I’ll point out that there are occasional duds, like an evening ramen special that was stiff and flavorless, despite the bright greens and herbs heaped upon it.
But, overall, El Super Pan is as delightful a package as a great pressed sandwich. This is Santiago resuming his celebration of la buena vida and making his diners, once again, dance in our seats.