Pura Vida: A Pan-Latin paradise in Northern Liberties
When it comes to food, Philadelphia has little to envy to cities like New York. The culinary scene here is a reflection of the demographic explosion in which…
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Nestled on the corner of Fairmount and 6th Avenue in Philly’s trendy neighborhood of Northern Liberties, Guatemalan chef Charles Alvarez is serving up some of the city’s most innovative Latin Fusion cuisine.
“The idea was to get something in between fast food and gourmet,” said owner and head chef Charles Alvarez. “Kind of find the missing link in between. Being a BYOB, we try to have food for you to drink your wine with.”
Pura Vida’s history all started 11 years ago when Alvarez saw an opportunity after starting as opening chef at Tex-Mex restaurants El Fuego and Jose’s Tacos also in Northern Liberties.
“I saw that two of those were working out so I went solo,” said Alvarez. “Now I’m here kind of like closing the triangle (of the three restaurants).”
With his own place, Alvarez wanted to cater to a wide variety of customers while still keeping a rustic look emblematic of Guatemalan comedores, small mom and pop restaurants.
“[We have] not just tacos, but we also have lobster and raviolis and Penne pastas. So we get all clientele. Young, middle age, older … Everyone can rub shoulders.”
The laid back atmosphere can be seen in the restaurant’s colorful Instagram page (@puravidaphilly) where customers young and old are seen celebrating everything from birthdays to Cinco de Mayo while eating their tasty plates and drinking Mexican beers. You can see the freshness of the ingredients in the radiant images of the avocados, peppers and pico de gallo sauce.
Among the restaurant’s featured entrées is the Plato Gaucho, which is either a grilled chicken or steak plate served alongside tequila shrimp with Argentinean chimichurry sauce, roasted potatoes and salad.
“The Plato Gaucho is real popular with the guys,” noted Alvarez. “Guys like steak and a little carbs.”
Tasty appetizers include the restaurant’s namesake dish, Pura Vida - a grilled zucchini, squash and fried cheese plate with creamy curry sauce as well as the restaurant’s historic bestseller, the Ginger Chicken soup.
“(Chicken Ginger soup) is the one we keep all the time, the whole year. That’s one of the ones that doesn’t stop selling even in the summer.”
The restaurant also offers its own homemade beverages, such as margaritas, mojitos and other mixes. The Rosa de Jamaica is a particularly tasty treat. Just remember to bring your own liquor if you want an alcoholic beverage. They will mix it right in for you.
Pura Vida’s scrumptious menu has not needed to change too much over the years, but Alvarez is always looking to keep his menu up to date testing out new dishes with his customers.
“I try out new specialties every once in a while and if people ask for it I do it again and it becomes a menu item … and whatever doesn’t sell I move out of the menu.”
One such dish is the Soy Chorizo, which started out as an appetizer, but due to its success is now featured on a variety of plates.
“We get a lot of vegetarians, vegans. They really like the Soy Chorizo,” explained Alvarez.
Also popular is the side dish Curtido, a pickled vegetable concoction, which Alvarez has added to multiple dishes as well.
“Everything is homemade. Pickled cabbage, shaved carrots, red onions. We try to have healthy meals for the customers using roasted peppers and onions. Fish, shrimp, the dish Sabor Caribe (a mix of curtido, fish, tequila shrimp, roasted peppers and onions), a lot of people order that.”
Alvarez has an eclectic background having worked in both food courts and fancy restaurants making specialties from a variety of countries such as Guatemala, France, Argentina and America.
“Since I was 13, 14 I started to cook back there (in Guatemala),” said Alvarez. “It was home cooking and I used to work for this Argentinean restaurant, named los Gauchcitos.”
Then the first food courts in Guatemala, called “multirestaurantes”, opened in the early 80s giving him an opportunity to make a variety of cuisines in one place.
Drawn to Philadelphia by family living in the city in the mid 80s, Alvarez got his start here at a French restaurant where he learned to cook for a wide audience.
“Working in a French bistro, all the time you see like construction workers sitting at the bar eating burgers and sandwiches to other people eating a nice meal with an all white table cloth and wine.”
His training in Philadelphia also came from working at the Middle Eastern restaurant, La boheme and the original Dockstreet brewpub.
Pura Vida’s Guatemalan touch starts with the Guatemalan tamale, which is cooked using a special formula.
“Unlike Mexican tamales cooked in a cornhusk, the Guatemalan tamale is wrapped in banana leaf, but we cook the dough before and then wrap it and steam it again to get more flavor and the tamale gets a little more fluffy. It’s not too dense,” explained Alvarez.
There’s also the classic Guatemalan treat Ilachitas, a shredded beef dish. Similar to a pork brisket, the Ilachitas are slow cooked but with cinnamon.
But don’t be fooled, Pura Vida is known for its variety.
“The restaurant is Latin fusion so there’s a little bit of everything. Caribbean, Mexican, Central American, South American,” said Alvarez.
If you are looking for a tasty Pan-Latin meal, Pura Vida is a good bet.