Pura Vida Cocina Latina & Sangria Bar—it’s a mouthful, but it’s a delicious one. Pura Vida serves up a range of Latin American specialties, including paella, papusas, and tamales. They serve 8 kinds of sangria that change with the seasons, plus a wide range of other mixed drinks, beer, and wine. Pura Vida is located downtown, across from the Lizzie Fountain and next to the comic book store.
I went to interview Gianni Schell, the owner, to get the inside scoop.
Sarah Browne: How did you get the idea to start a Latin kitchen?
Gianni Schell: I own Sanctuary down the street, so I’ve been in the restaurant business for seven or eight years now, basically my whole life, and my mom was Colombian. Although I look very American, my mom was born and raised in Colombia and grew up in a very traditional Hispanic household (my dad was American). My mom was one of twelve, and I grew up in a big Latin American family in New York City. This is the food I grew up eating every weekend. I always wanted to do something like this, and this spot opened up, and we purchased it and kept it the way it was for about a year and all along the plan was to kind of go along with that theme, so eventually the stars aligned and and we were able to do that.
SB: How did you choose this location?
GS: I always loved this location. It used to be called the Winemaker’s Pourhouse. I would walk by here all the time, and they did okay—they kind of struggled a little bit—but I was always like, “God, that’s such a good location, I wish they would do better.” And I would come in and try to patronize them and they just kind of hummed along. They weren’t really restaurant people—they had other jobs, and it’s really hard to run a restaurant if you have a full-time job and come in the evenings.
So one day I was at Sanctuary and there was a knock on the door, and this dude comes in and says, “Hey, are you guys hiring?” and I said, “Well, no, not really, you could give me your resume, but don’t you work at the Pourhouse?” and he said, “Well, I did,” and I said, “You don’t work there anymore?” and he said, “No, it closed yesterday,” and I was like, “What?” and I literally came running down here that day.
GS: I always loved this location, by the flagpole with lots of kids and families. I used to always play out here with my kids, they’re a little bit older now, but I’d play out there with them and I would always look at it thinking, “What a great location.” So yeah, that was it. I always loved the location, so when it opened up I just jumped at it.
SB: Oh, nice! Yeah, I like this place too.
SB: What are the inspirations for your dishes? I guess you already said, but…
GS: I can get more specific. In a Latin American family, the grandmother is abuelita, my abuelita was the inspiration since she was just always in the kitchen cooking, and being a little kid watching her cook, and the smells in the kitchen, and whatever she was making always smelled so good. She did a lot of desserts, Spanish dolches, like Spanish treats, and platanos, deep fried bananas with a little bit of cinnamon sugar, stuff like that. And paella is a traditional dish that we ate a lot of, and a lot of arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. So my aunt, my aunties, and my grandma, my abuelita, were the inspiration for my food.
SB: How long does it take to make paella?
GS: A few hours. I make it every day, and it takes about an hour and a half to two hours. It takes me an hour and a half if my kitchen staff does some of the prep for me, but to play it safe, I always like to allow two hours to do it.
SB: What kinds of sangria do you serve?
GS: We have eight kinds! It’s a rotating menu. We always have a house, which is a red proprietary blend, we call it Tradicional, which is our traditional take on it, and then we have a Prickleberry Delicious, which is prickly pear cactus fruit with strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon. Then there’s White Ginger, a white sangria infused with ginger beer, and then our Pura Vida Royale, which is basically our Tradicional topped with champagne. Usually the inspiration behind our sangrias are which ingredients are fresh. If things are in season and really delicious, that’s the time you want to use them.
SB: Oh yeah, like strawberries in the spring.
GS: Yeah, right now, we use raspberries and strawberries in the Prickleberry Delicious, so that one’s really hot right now.
SB: What kinds of live music have you had?
GS: So normally on our system, we always play Latin-flavored music, so a lot of Gypsy Kings and Pandora stations that have a Latin flavor. Sometimes we bring in live music with a Latin flavor, or similar tropical or reggae-ish type themes. And then we do a DJ on Saturdays and we have dancing, and he plays a lot of tropical house and Latin house and Latin-flavored stuff too. But we always mix in traditional music and favorites as well, just to keep everybody happy, but definitely geared towards a Latin flavor, that’s for sure. Latin, tropical, and reggae, is what we kind of aim for.
SB: I noticed some of the Yelp reviews said you don’t have a full kitchen…
GS: We don’t!
SB: So where do you cook the food?
GS: Basically a lot of the food is cooked at Sanctuary down the street. The nature of Latin food, for the most part, is that it is pre-cooked, like you can’t make just one enchilada on the fly or one tamale on the fly. You always pre-bake them, you roll them, you get all your stuff and you have big casserole dishes ready, full of them for the day, and then once you’re ready to serve them you heat them up. We do a lot of par-cooking, so you cook them halfway to three-quarters, and then we finish them off here in a convection oven. For example paella takes about two hours to cook, so we cook that for the day, and then we pack it up, put it in the fridge and reheat it as needed.
We also have a couple of Latin American chefs that work for us offsite that bring us food either daily or every couple of days. There’s a lady that makes tamales for us, she brings them in a couple of times a week. We have a lady that makes papusas, she brings those in a couple of times a week, so between that and the paella, and some stuff we do on site, and then the rest is made at Sanctuary. Sanctuary is a block away and it’s got a huge kitchen, so a lot of the work is done there, but all our sauces and salsas, and a lot of our bacon-wrapped dates and stuffed jalapeno peppers and things like that are all made here, it’s just the entrees that are made off-site.
SB: Oh, I see! Thanks for meeting with me today!
GS: My pleasure!