Metro Atlanta is one of the top regions for Latinx population growth in the country, and recently there’s been a boom in elevated Latin American cuisine to match. As a bilingual writer with family roots in Cuba, Spain, and Colombia, I’ve been fascinated to watch the way the city has changed over the past decade. I moved here three years ago from Miami, but before that, I went to grad school in Savannah and used to hop over to Atlanta on weekends. At the time, I couldn’t see myself ever moving to Atlanta; it just didn’t seem as international as other places I’d lived before, like Los Angeles and New York.
Chef Santiago Gomez also moved to Atlanta via Miami just two years ago (he was born and raised in Mexico City), and with the opening last fall of Palo Santo, his first A-Town restaurant, he’s brought with him culture, tradition, warmth, and robust flavors–everything and more you’d expect of a fine-dining establishment in cities like New York, London, or CDMX.
Palo santo—the restaurant is named after the “holy wood” after all—burns throughout the space and its sweet, piney scent hits you as you check in. Light glows from massive fluffy agave-fiber chandeliers. Dinner here is a sensory experience; you can hear the music but also snippets of conversation from tables across the room. With seating for eighty-six people in the dining room and bar, it feels like you’re at a big, loud family reunion, one where everyone—at least when I visited—is actually getting along.
I dined there this winter and was in awe; the place was buzzing. Spanish and Portuguese could be heard throughout the dining room, and nearly everyone—from the kitchen staff and servers to management and guests—seemed to be of Latin American descent. It wasn’t lost on me that Chef Santiago and the restaurant’s general manager and beverage director, Antonio Morales, spent the evening drifting from table to table, hugging friends, chatting and laughing—one of the most joyful moments I’ve experienced in a restaurant in a long time, maybe ever.
“I love that our Hispanic and Latino communities love Palo Santo, but I also love that people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures love it, too,” Gomez says. “We are serving ingredients, flavors, and food we all love and are familiar with from our upbringing, our families, and our culture.”
Servers push around a cart filled with premium and small-batch tequilas and mezcals for diners who want an up-close look at the spirits on offer. They come neat, or in creative cocktails like the Tres en Uno, which combines tequila and mezcal with grapefruit, beet, orange, and carrot juices.
Chef Santiago sources local ingredients as often as possible, and everything in his kitchen is cooked over wood or charcoal. “Our sourdough is from Star Provisions, the amazing mushrooms are Southern Cap, Hoja Santa is from the Buford Highway Farmers Market, and flavorful produce is from Collective Harvest,” he says, listing some of his area purveyors. “As an immigrant chef, it’s important that through my food I express the cultural, gastronomic heritage of my home country, too, with honest, real ingredients. That’s why our corn, cocoa, chiles, and beans come from Mexican farmers, through my partnership with Tamoa, an heirloom corn supplier that works with eighty-plus farmer families across seven states in Mexico.”
The shining stars for me were the mushroom rice (it’s almost like a creamy paella or a risotto—made with a Mexican mayonnaise), the papas bravas (with crunchy garlic and a savory truffle queso foam—unlike any I’ve ever had), the grilled octopus (cooked to perfection and topped with a spicy guajillo sauce and shiso serrano mayo), and melt-in-your-mouth bone marrow alongside the carne asada. There are also Japanese elements in some dishes, which I loved: Yuzu and coconut added a fresh, light flavor to the lobster aguachile. I ate so much I barely remember dessert, but I don’t regret a single bite, sip, or emotion. I might’ve even shed a happy tear just looking around the room, seeing people truly relishing the moment—and then again when recapping my dinner to friends. I can’t wait to bring them.
Gomez says he created his restaurant for everyone, and I believe that, but I also like the idea that this is where a Latina like me comes to feel at home. I’ve been in the South for years, yet I’ve always felt there’s this elusive thing I’m seeking and haven’t quite been able to find, until now. Palo Santo fills that nostalgic void for me in Atlanta and I think it leaves the door open for other innovative chefs to follow suit and tell their own stories.