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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
RAUL’S LATIN KITCHEN & CATERING
Menu: Caribbean with a focus on Puerto Rican cuisine
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
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