Some chefs like to keep secrets. Sometimes, the secret is a matter of kitchen technique. A French chef might not want you to know that the potatoes on the menu contain more butter and cream than potato.
Sometimes, the secret is a more embarrassing fact, like the celebrity chef who keeps showing up to photo shoots in his chef’s whites even though he hasn’t touched a saute pan in one of his own restaurants in a decade.
Other times, the secret is not really a secret. Take the secret menu, for example. It's an old trick. By making a secret dish unlisted on the menu, by leaving it up to word-of-mouth for it to be known, a chef is encouraging interest, not hiding it. Sometimes, that trick can work too well. The off-menu cheeseburger at Holeman & Finch Public House, for example, became so well known that it ended up eclipsing everything else that restaurant once did well. It's hard to believe now that it ever was a secret to begin with.
But what if a secret menu stayed secret? Wouldn't that be a waste? Those were some questions running through my mind the other night while eating dinner at El Super Pan at The Battery. It was just a few weeks ago that I happened to hear, while sitting at a bar one night, that chef Hector Santiago was serving a real dinner menu at the second location of El Super Pan. That's the way these sorts of secrets are meant to be passed: over drinks, among friends, from one diner to another. I wasn't even sure if I really believed it. I pulled up the website and didn't see any of the dishes I was looking for. Yet, the other night at El Super Pan, I found everything I was looking for and more: big platters of arroz frito, house-made chorizos, carne asada, and, the best, a bowl of secret mofongo. I'm glad someone let me in on the secret.
Santiago’s mofongo should be no secret. It’s the best dish he serves. Yet, you won’t find it mentioned on the website or on the menu. It’s not written on the chalkboard with the other specials. It’s not printed out on the short “menu del dia.” The staff treats it with the classic manner of a secret dish, never once acknowledging the mofongo’s existence until you do. “Of course, we have mofongo every day,” they’ll say as soon as you ask about it. You must order the mofongo.
Santiago’s rendition is brilliant. The plantains are bright green, fried, and mashed together into a fist-sized ball, a clean quenelle shape, with plenty of garlic and fat. The unripe fruit adds a pleasantly firm texture to the mixture. That could be satisfying by itself, but it is brought to life with an herby, acidic broth, layered with translucent onions, that I can only describe as electric. A pile of pork belly lardons, cooked to juicy yet crisp perfection, round it out into a heaping, filling dish. The combination of textures and flavors could not be more complementary: the firm bits of plantain and garlic soaking up that electric sauce with each spoonful, the meaty but elegant cubes of pork.
It is such a perfect dish, the kind that makes you exclaim, “You have to try this,” to your dining companion after only a couple of bites. That’s what happened to me, and I immediately regretted it, because I wanted every last bite to myself.
Though mofongo is the only truly off-menu dish I've had at El Super Pan, it seems to me that the "menu del dia," a handful of oft-changing entrees served nightly, are nearly as secret. El Super Pan, both at Ponce City Market and this location at The Battery, is nominally a sandwich shop. In fact, it offers some of the best sandwiches served in Atlanta.
The media noche, a pressed-flat heaping of adobo roasted pork, ham, fried pork skin, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, is a hefty classic. The crust of egg-washed bread cracks like glass. The combination of pork three ways is addictive and coma-inducing.
On the other end of the spectrum, a sandwich of mildly spicy tuna escabeche is downright light and elegant, dressed with radishes and crunchy pepitas. Best of all is the airy focaccia, which is like a flavorful cloud of bread holding the tuna in it. There are other curiosities, including a pork belly bun that’s something like a Puerto Rican take on Taiwanese gua bao as well as a vegetarian version with smoked tofu.
Just like the menu served at Ponce City Market, these sandwiches are great, but they aren’t exactly why I wanted to drive across town to this location of El Super Pan. What I wanted was Santiago’s cooking, a real meal. The menu del dia doesn’t have much on it, but it is a hint of what he’s capable of.
There is a platter of arroz frito, a dish that lands between a seafood paella and fried rice. There are rings of chewy squid, moist red shrimp, long, tender artichoke hearts, and dollops of herby crema that tie the dish together. At the bottom of the pan are rich, dark bits that will have you scraping it up with your fork.
On any given night, there are a few house-packed chorizos that the kitchen will serve you, grilled and sliced and still juicy, on a long butcher’s board. Some are long and thin, like the Spanish-style chorizo chistorra. Others are thick and packed with herbaceous touches, like the Puerto Rican-style longaniza.
An entree of carne asada is treated with unusual reverence. A thick cut of top sirloin is grilled slowly and shaved down into rosy, medium rare ribbons that seem impossibly tender. Even better, the meat is folded around a seasonal bouquet of root vegetables and herbs. The beans and rice served in a bowl on the side are perfect with a big splash of pique, a house-made vinegar sauce spiked with peppers and herbs.
All of these go just right with the excellent cocktail menu. My favorite is the Negrito, a stirred boozy and bitter rum variation on the Negroni, but I’m also impressed with the dry, citrusy margarita, which isn’t anything like those syrupy versions sold almost everywhere else in town.
These dishes have the spirit of the elaborate, enthusiastic cooking I remember from Santiago’s heyday at Pura Vida. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I miss that full experience. The menu del dia at El Super Pan is something different, just a hint of what Santiago’s kitchen is capable of. Maybe it is greedy of me to say I want more, a longer menu, but the truth is that I’d take anything I could get from this place. I’m just glad it isn’t a secret to me anymore.
EL SUPER PAN AT THE BATTERY
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: inventive Puerto Rican
Service: casual and friendly
Best dishes: mofongo, media noche, carne asada, arroz frito