Atlanta Patio Pick: Hideaway bodega is new act for longtime chef

A tabla from Raul's Latin Kitchen brings a selection of Puerto Rican appetizers, including empanadas, carne frita and maduros. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)
Caption
A tabla from Raul's Latin Kitchen brings a selection of Puerto Rican appetizers, including empanadas, carne frita and maduros. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Raul’s Latin Kitchen brings Puerto Rican food and hospitality to Prep culinary campus

Numerous cultures are known for warm hospitality, but Puerto Ricans are among the best for their outward, inviting ways. From beaming smiles to heaping food portions to flowing drink served with upbeat drum music in the background, a Puerto Rican welcome is an arms-wide-open BIENVENIDOS!

That expressive spirit of Puerto Rican hospitality is one that I experienced at Raul’s Latin Kitchen, located on the Prep Atlanta campus near Spaghetti Junction. Open since 2014, Prep provides shared and private kitchen space for more than 200 local food entrepreneurs. More recently, it began marketing Prep Food Junction, a collection of its on-premises restaurants.

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Chef Raul Thomas offers Puerto Rican food and hospitality at his restaurant, Raul's Latin Kitchen. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)
Caption
Chef Raul Thomas offers Puerto Rican food and hospitality at his restaurant, Raul's Latin Kitchen. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Tucked in one of the back buildings, Raul’s is a Latin hideaway that looks like a New York bodega and holds the relaxed vibe of a Puerto Rican chinchorro, the sort of roadside food shacks that pepper the island’s coast and inland byways.

Bimbo cookies, Sazón seasonings, Yaucono and other Puerto Rican coffees line the shelves of the small, cramped shop. A display case tempts with pastries and pan de agua. A cooler is stocked with cans of Latin carbonated beverages.

In the kitchen, a couple of cooks can be seen frying thick yucca wedges, round tostones and half-moons of empanadas filled with beef, avocado, jerk chicken, ham and cheese.

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Raul's Latin Kitchen offers quintessential Puerto Rican plates like slow-roasted pork (pernil) with a side of yellow rice and peas. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)
Caption
Raul's Latin Kitchen offers quintessential Puerto Rican plates like slow-roasted pork (pernil) with a side of yellow rice and peas. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Owner Raul Thomas stations himself behind the counter. He is host, GM, expediter, cashier and exec chef. After a long absence from the dining scene, Chef Raul is a restaurateur once again.

In the early 2000s, the New York native of Puerto Rican descent operated Raul’s Latin American Cafe, first in Austell and later in Marietta. When that closed after a three-year run, he shifted to catering, private cooking and culinary instruction. Seven years ago, he added theatrical production to his resume, having acquired the Theatre in the Square in Marietta, restoring the building, and setting into motion Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square, with his son as artistic director.

The pandemic brought the theater business to a sudden halt.

“We thought we were going to come back in 60 to 90 days. Sitting home after two, three months was driving me nuts, so I started to live by my words: ‘You have to always be reinventing yourself,’” said Thomas, whose early culinary moments include time at a Marriott Marquis kitchen in NYC as well as working as the executive chef for Georgia State University.

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At Raul's Latin Kitchen, mofongo, a filling dish of garlic-laced fried plantains, comes with your choice of protein. Here, it is studded with shrimp. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)
Caption
At Raul's Latin Kitchen, mofongo, a filling dish of garlic-laced fried plantains, comes with your choice of protein. Here, it is studded with shrimp. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Someone approached him about purchasing a food truck. The vehicle needed extensive repairs, so Thomas spent the early weeks of pandemic lockdown fixing the truck in his driveway. “That was my COVID relief, daily,” he said.

The first time he took the newly wrapped Raul’s Latin Kitchen to the streets peddling Puerto Rican eats, he sold out in two hours. “I knew I was onto something really good,” he said.

Thomas began renting commissary space at Prep in June of last year. By January, he had outgrown those digs and moved into a larger space, with the plan of fusing together a bodega-restaurant model. These days, the food truck is idle, except when booked for events and private functions. The restaurant is calling his name.

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“COVID is what got me into this mess of getting back into the restaurant business,” he told me when we spoke on the phone days after my dinner.

I didn’t know any of this when I stepped inside his new venture. I did know that my dinner party would arrive hungry, so I placed an order for each of the five empanadas on the menu. Thomas asked if I wanted him to make it a tabla — a platter rounded out by carne frita (fried chunks of pork), yucca fries and maduros (sweet fried plantains). Sí, por favor.

Raul’s Latin Kitchen is technically a counter-service operation, but he readied a five-top on the scrappy patio: a couple of parking spots transformed by brightly colored aluminum tables and chairs, with gray slate chips underfoot.

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After that delightful platter of deftly folded, flaky, flavor-filled empanadas came a tray of slow-roasted pork (all the chopped-up goodness!) with mountainous scoops of subtly scented yellow rice studded with peas. There was peppery jerk chicken plated with red beans and white rice; and an old-school metal pot of mofongo — a delicious mashup of fried plantains, crunchy pork cracklings and heady garlic, with shrimp as my chosen protein.

Don’t cry uncle just yet.

If you are a Cuban sandwich enthusiast, try this one from Thomas. He fetches the bread from Florida. Since you are there, order the chorizo sammie; they make the sausage in-house.

Before I hung up after speaking with Thomas, he reminded me that Raul’s Latin Kitchen joins an international mix at PREP’s Food Junction, one that includes Middle Eastern fare from Hot Chickpeas and Taiwanese chicken and drinks at Java Saga.

Leave it to the Puerto Rican chef to open his arms wide.

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A jerk chicken plate comes with a choice of two sides. Here, the flavorful meat is paired with red beans and rice. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)
Caption
A jerk chicken plate comes with a choice of two sides. Here, the flavorful meat is paired with red beans and rice. (Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com)

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

RAUL’S LATIN KITCHEN & CATERING

Menu: Caribbean with a focus on Puerto Rican cuisine

Alcohol: No

What I ordered: Tabla (platter of empanadas, carne frita, fried yucca, maduros (sweet fried plantains) and dipping sauces); pernil plate; jerk chicken plate; shrimp mofongo; Cuban sandwich; chorizo sandwich

Service options: Dine-in and takeout; online ordering available; for delivery, order via DoorDash or Grubhub

Mask policy: Strongly encouraged

Address, phone: 3795 Presidential Parkway, Suite FP8, Atlanta, 770-559-1152

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays

Website: raulslatinkitchen.com

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