Even on your first visit, when you walk into 787 by Chazitos, you will be greeted like family.
Probably the loudest in the chorus of “Bienvenidos!” will come from the man whose name is on the menu, executive chef and owner Chaz Ortiz. He will be beyond happy to see you walk through the door because he wants nothing more than to feed you the food of his family’s native Puerto Rico.
No one in his extended family had a culinary career, so Ortiz’s inspiration comes from a culture of home cooking. He principally credits his grandmother and his father as “huge inspirations” for what has become his celebrated career.
Everything at 787, from the Puerto Rican area code in the restaurant’s name to the recipes, is really a tribute to his grandma and his entire family. Even the smaller menu items are served on grandma’s china: one of this new place’s dearest touches.
“Being in a Latino family, everybody cooks,” Ortiz said. “We don’t go out much to eat because we make some awesome food at home. I have a lot of uncles and aunts, so when we got together on Sundays, you weren’t just cooking for ten people. You were cooking for thirty, forty.”
That sounds like great training for running a restaurant - or now two restaurants plus two food trucks. Ortiz’s latest eponymous eatery ‘soft-opened’ last week and is set to celebrate a grand opening on January 30.
The restaurant’s logo is a work of art itself, the turret of San Juan’s Castillo San Cristóbal neatly superimposed on the ‘8’, a finishing touch on an entrepreneurial journey that took nearly two years to realize.
Ortiz was recruited by the Vantosh Realty Group early in 2018, and he signed the lease at 2226 Bull Street in March of that year. “We already saw Starland was jumping,” he explained. “We knew the food truck park was coming, we knew other things were coming, so we were like, ‘Now’s the time.’”
Since Starland Yard opened its welcome container back in August, Chazito’s Latin Cuisine food truck has been one of the area’s most frequent feeders, serving up countless Cubanos and endless empanadas.
“Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” Ortiz said about whether his mobile presence in the neighborhood made this newest venture possible. “Our truck was there Sunday, and we were open Sunday,” he added last week, “and we were actually neck-and-neck in sales. I’m curious to see how it does when we’re fully open.”
This second non-four-wheeled Chazitos restaurant has a look that is as unique and inviting as its cuisine, the culmination of more than a year’s renovation and design work for Ortiz and business partner and General Manager Ramon Martínez, who also handles FOH.
The big front windows and high ceilings make the entire space feel more outside than in. A dozen shiny orange hightops offer pub-style seating for pairs up front, while inside a chain link fence, reclaimed industrial wooden spools on casters make tables for parties of four or more in the main dining room.
Light gray poured concrete floors gleam beneath the entire restaurant, and a wooden bar the length of a beach in Vieques overlooks a sparkling silver kitchen tricked out with all new fixtures and offers sixteen seats at a veritable chef’s table.
A mural of the Castillo and the Caribbean flows across the wall opposite the open kitchen. Bomba and Danza plays overhead. Even your bill comes to you in a pilón, the Puerto Rican mortar and pestle used to make mofongo.
You are not in Georgia anymore.
Clearly and correctly proud of everything served at 787, Ortiz immediately touted the mofongo, a Puerto Rican signature staple: smashed plantains mixed and layered in garlic oil, broth, and seasonings and then topped with your choice of either shrimp ajillo, fried pork, roasted pork, ropa vieja made from flank steak trimmings, or churrasco.
Other than Chazito’s Latin Cuisine, Ortiz’s first brick-and-mortar which opened in Pooler in October of 2016, few other places in the 912 make mofongo, so you might want to order this the first time you go to 787.
At the same time, Ortiz is determined to make his new place a destination known for superb steaks as much as it is for the Puerto Rican standards created by Chef Jared Jackson, Sous Chef Eduardo Acosta, and Chazito himself.
There is not a steakhouse anywhere around 787, and he is proud of his ‘Chef’s Table’ 30-day dry-aged cuts: churrasco, ribeye, and New York strip, served with house-made chimichurri and ancho demi-glace.
Two separate menus are available all day with the ‘street food’ carte featuring Ortiz’s spin on the cheesesteak, a classic Cubano, exemplary empanadas, and other more casual plates priced from $8 to $16. Even the five ‘street food’ mains come with a side, which makes for an incredible deal.
The empanada dough could not be better, cracker-crisp after frying but still supple on the inside. Two to an order ($8), the veggie is filled with house-cleaned and chopped mushrooms, tossed in Ortiz’s ropa vieja seasoning, and the pork version is just as delicious.
The bacalaíto hushpuppies are the marvelous marriage of Puerto Rican and Lowcountry cuisines and should be served in a bucket of fifty. No PR pancake this, but a two-bite-sized savory salt cod and cornmeal fritter that pairs perfectly with Ortiz’s homemade cinnamon-guava sweet sauce.
The more formal and elaborate dinner menu comprises appetizers from $8 to $11, that mofongo, those steaks, and ‘La Familia’ entrées that pay homage to Ortiz’s relatives and their recipes.
The gravy in the ropa vieja is as great as the tender salty beef and mashed plantains, and calling the chicharones de pollo ‘Puerto Rican chicken wings’ does not remotely do these salty, crispy nuggets justice.
Ortiz plans that the menus are going to “change with the seasons,” perhaps even every couple of weeks, based on their intent of “shopping local.”
His team already house-cuts its fries, so we can only hope that yuca fritas are on the way.
“It was definitely a big decision to make,” Ortiz said of opening 787, “because I started off with the trucks and have the small brick-and-mortar in Pooler, so I’m going to go for the fence and swing for a home run.”
The worry of leaving one location to be in another is the Sophie’s Choice of the branched-out restaurateur, but Ortiz has an entire family behind him as he splits time between Pooler, Starland, and the two food trucks.
He promises to be wherever “the party” is: in one of the trucks at a local festival or roasting a lechón at Pooler, a special esculent event he also plans for the second Saturday of every month in 787’s backyard.
“I have my aunts and cousins and my dad,” he explained with visible gratitude. “My father volunteers. My grandfather. They make sure that it’s all taken care of.”
“Pooler is set,” he added. “I have an awesome crew up there.”
Originally from Lancaster, Penn., Ortiz’s first foray into serving his native cuisine to Savannahians came from a tent set up at the annual LASO Latin Music Festival on River Street in 2014. His first food truck hit the streets in 2015, followed by another truck in June of 2016.
His father’s family hails from Orocovis, Puerto Rico, smack dab in the center of the island, and his mother’s side is from Hormigueros, on the west side - funnily enough, just a half-hour’s drive south of Rincon. No, not that Rincon.
In 1998, Ortiz’s father moved to Georgia to be closer to his siblings and relatives, and Chazito came down in 2005, first going to school and working at Gulfstream before the kitchen called his name.
Ortiz’s grandmother and grandfather now live in Fleming, just the other side of Richmond Hill, having moved down to Georgia after they retired.
When I asked Ortiz what items he ‘stole’ from grandma, he paused before broadening a smirk and then laughing while fessing up: “The entire menu.”
“Anything under ‘familia’ on the menu, that is definitely straight-up Grandma,” he admitted. “She was my chef. She still is.”
On both menus, he features many of his grandma’s recipes but says he has “spiced them up a bit.”
“If you ask her,” he then joked with his ever-present smile, “we’re doing it all wrong.”
Not a chance. I would bet a mofongo mountain that this abuela is truly very proud of her Chazito.