Hector Santiago — the mad genius behind Pura Vida Tapas — has a great sense of the possible. The flat, two-tiered rooftop to his restaurant’s Poncey-Highland building became the perfect venue for a self-irrigating pepper garden, nourished by both rainwater and runoff from his HVAC unit. The parking lot across the street became an ideally visible spot to stage a weekends-only outdoor burrito stand that he christened Burro-Pollo.
Now, the small dining room around the corner from his restaurant that he once dreamed of turning into a high end dining destination has found its raison d’être as Super Pan Latino Sandwich Shop. Open for lunch Tuesdays-Fridays in a hilariously cobbled-together space, it’s a true original.
When you enter on Blue Ridge Ave., you climb a small staircase to the Pura Vida prep kitchen, which has been outfitted with a cash counter. You place your order and return downstairs to extremely pleasant small dining room to wait for your food.
I recently ate at Xoco, Rick Bayless’ much heralded Mexican sandwich shop in Chicago, and though Super Pan is a much more modest operation, the food is every bit as good. Santiago knows the art of creating distinctive flavor profiles that linger in your memory.
The BBQ rib bolillo ($12, above) packs tender and soulful shredded meat into a crusty bolillo roll (made by Bread Garden bakery) and tops it with an onion/carrot/cilantro mixture that brings Vietnamese banh mi to mind. There’s also an orange/chipotle BBQ sauce at your disposal for dipping, pouring and smearing pleasure. I loved the flavor of this sandwich but wanted a little higher veg:meat ratio. Maybe I’m weird that way. Most folks probably want their $12 sandwiches packed full of meat.
Yet I think the sandwich that will make this spot famous is this Medio Dia ($11, right) — Santiago’s diurnal version of the media noche Cuban sandwich.
Imagine a Cuban sandwich rethought: meltingly soft adobo-roasted Berkshire pork, thin strips of chayote pickle, hot-fruity habanero mustard and clove salt tucked into a crisp-soft pineapple bun. Got that? Now slide a few slivers of crackling pork skin into this business and just try not to inhale.
Santiago also gets big ups for the presentation: the sandwich is first wrapped and pressed in a banana leaf, then wrapped in sandwich paper and cut.
The only other sandwich I tried was a shrimp coctel bolillo ($9, below) that was unusual enough that it took me a few bites before I started to appreciate its charms.
This creamy, cold shrimp cocktail has elusive flavors of pickled garlic, shallots, ginger and basil, and it gets a cap of piquillo pepper agridulce, which tasted like a pepper chow chow with a Spanish accent. It’s kind of a mess to eat, but a glorious one. Santiago likes to cut the bread unevenly so as to pack the ingredients into the larger, boat-like bottom part. You have to kind of cradle it from the bottom and attack from the front. Load up on napkins first.