The moment I stepped through the door at Porch Light Latin Kitchen, I knew it was someplace special. The lively music, the cheerful colors and the smiles on the faces of servers and customers alike made this south Florida expat feel right at home.
By Joan Durbin // Photography by Erin Gray Cantrell
Though its vibrant, family oriented atmosphere is similar to many other flourishing Cuban, South American and Caribbean eateries I have loved, we heard through the culinary grapevine that Porch Light’s food is an elevated version of the time-honored dishes on those other menus.
In the minutes after we were seated, I noticed thoughtful touches like fresh flowers on each table and a small flagon of simple syrup brought with the iced tea so patrons can sweeten it to their liking. Exploring the menu, it was obvious to me from the descriptions that these Latin-influenced dishes were anything but ordinary.
“Nothing here is traditional,” chef and owner Andre Gomez affirmed with a grin. “But it’s food that’s approachable. Latin people get some familiar flavors, but the average Joe who is completely unfamiliar will have a good meal as well.”
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in south Florida, Gomez now lives just five minutes away from his small Smyrna eatery. Trained as a classical chef, he has a fine dining background that includes a stint with Atlanta’s Kevin Rathbun.
His food has roots in many Latin cuisines, but he enjoys using his skills and imagination to tweak the elements of each basic dish to create something significantly more interesting and appealing.
My companion, a huge fan of fried sweet plantains, immediately asked for the rum glazed sweet plantains, a side dish he wanted for a starter. Hesitantly, because I feared it might be cloyingly sweet, I took a bite. Yes, there was sweetness there, but it was nicely offset by earthy notes of shallots and garlic. Like other items we tried, the dish was a perfect blend of sweet and savory.
Gomez later told me in addition to the rum, he flambés the plantains in banana liqueur then adds milk and cream to cook down into the glaze.
“Anyone can fry a plantain. I wanted to see what else I could do with it.”
A traditional Puerto Rican dish, mofongo, makes an appearance as an appetizer. Every cook’s mofongo will be slightly different, but all start with mashed green plantains and garlic formed into a ball that absorbs attendant flavors, often pork. Gomez makes his with house made and smoked duck confit and bacon bits in a broth of chicken stock, shitake mushrooms and cumin.
“That duck is outrageous,” my companion stated between mouthfuls.
Another Porch Light starter exemplifies Gomez’s creativity. Since I know empanadas as a little fried pie stuffed with meat or vegetables, naturally I assumed the plantain empanadas on the menu were in the pie’s filling.
Wrong. Instead of corn or flour dough, the plantains were in the pie’s light and crisp crust. Stuffed with braised pork, fried and accented with avocado aioli, this playful take on an empanada packed loads of flavor.
One of the day’s specials was grilled pork loin from Georgia’s Heritage Farm, sliced and served on a bed of pureed sweet potatoes enlivened with a dash of Sriracha, that popular Vietnamese condiment of chilies, sugar and garlic.
The succulent meat was cooked to exactly the degree of doneness and was seasoned just enough to let its flavor shine through. It was complemented, not overwhelmed, by the sweet spiciness of the puree.
A mouthwatering hunk of boneless short rib braised in Malbec wine was succulent and delicious, easily cut with a fork. Gomez sources the meat from North Georgia’s grass fed Brasstown Beef, and its high quality is evident. A garlicky chimichurri sauce from his Argentinean grandmother’s recipe has splashes of sherry vinegar and lemon to cut the richness of the meat.
Cumin spiced St. Louis-cut pork ribs, also from Heritage Farm, are tender and lean. We happily shared a rack and never once felt overcome by the dull digestive heaviness some ribs can engender. Among the many choices for sides we can heartily recommend a tasty mac ‘n’ cheese with pork rind crumbs and the grilled fresh corn, stripped from the cob, sizzled in bacon fat and mixed with lime juice, Sriracha, aioli and crumbly and salty Mexican cheese.
Desserts here are made by Sugar Spun Fun, custom bakers in Atlanta, with Gomez’s collaboration. Seldom have I had a better tres leches cake, a light sponge cake soaked in three kinds of sweetened milk and served here with vanilla whipped cream and caramel sauce.
Porch Light Latin Kitchen has liquor and cocktails as well as a limited but well-chosen list of beers and wines. It is open Tuesday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. for lunch and 5:15 to 9:45 p.m. for dinner. Saturday hours are the same for dinner but lunch is noon to 3:45 p.m. Porch Light is closed Sunday and Monday.
Porch Light Latin Kitchen
300 Village Green Circle, Smyrna