Framed in the kitchen window of his popular food empire – Pura Vida, the restaurant, Super Pan, the sandwich shop and El Burro Pollo, the outdoor burrito stand – Hector Santiago stared longingly across North Highland.
It was a perfect Sunday afternoon – or would have been, if only he could have been across the street in the parking lot, serving up fresh burritos off the grill to a steady line of fans.
For months, Santiago has braved all kinds of weather to give the people what they want: burritos so unlike anyone else's they might as well go by another name. No beans, no rice, no cheese; just piles of beautifully spiced chicken or pork, dressed with shredded vegetables and half-wrapped in newspaper and foil.
If you've ever driven down North Highland between Ponce de Leon and North Avenue on weekends between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. (or until the food runs out), you've seen people waiting patiently in a line that can get so long, it snakes across the parking lot and on to the sidewalk. Most folks don't order theirs to go because they can't wait that long to tear into it. Those lucky enough to get a spot at the one long table grab a chair quickly and eat there; others sit on the edge of the parking lot or grass or lean up against a tree. This is street food at its finest, made to consume on the spot.
Or, it has been. This Sunday afternoon, the white tent, table and chairs were there; even a few people sitting around eating. But Santiago's Burro Pollo stand was not.
"The city shut us down yesterday," he said from the window, shaking his head. "Said we didn't have the right permits."
He moved the assembly line indoors, to Super Pan, his lunchtime sandwich business, and rigged up handmade signs – "El Burro Pollo Lives!" in red letters and arrows – to connect his customers with their burritos. At least with the tent and table still visible, folks might notice the signs and figure out he's just moved the operation across North Highland, to the place where he still calls the shots.
"They can take them across the street and eat them there, like always," he said. "I just can't assemble them over there."
Santiago said he wasn't sure how long things would be up in the air. After braving so many cold Saturdays and Sundays, he was missing the chance to preside over burrito central in perfect weather.
But his mind's already doing what it does best: figuring out creative solutions to whatever challenge comes along. So he's toying with the idea of moving it upstairs, to Pura Vida's bar.
While his popular restaurant wouldn't offer the same open-air excitement of El Burro Pollo, it would have at least one advantage: the chance to wash lunch down with a cold beer.