May 11, 2021 – Chicken fried until perfectly crisp, a generous dusting of crimson chile powder, a mountain of colorful coleslaw, a pair of pickles peeking out beneath the bun—a Heatwaves fried chicken sandwich is a sight to behold.
It’s been one of the hottest tickets in town, both literally and figuratively. Weekend pop-ups sold out faster than you could tap in your order and many of us were left out in the cold—until now.
The Instagram pop-up will soon open a brick-and-mortar location, Heatwaves Cafe in Pacific Grove, serving its signature hot chicken sandwiches alongside an expanded menu from chef-owner Rudolfo (Rudy) Ponce and family.
Heatwaves splashed down on the Central Coast last fall after the pandemic sidelined Ponce’s budding culinary career in Napa.
From childhood, Ponce has had a passion for food. His father, Juan, is the executive chef at Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Grotto. “Since I was a little kid, whenever I asked him to read me a book, it was The French Laundry cookbook,” he recalls. Ponce enrolled in the hospitality program at CSU Monterey Bay, then attended the Culinary Institute of America’s accelerated culinary arts program in Napa. In tandem with his studies, Ponce worked at famed Napa Valley eateries, including Model Bakery, Acacia House, Bouchon and Ciccio.
When the pandemic shuttered restaurants across Napa wine country, Ponce returned home. The homecoming wasn’t unexpected—“I knew that one day I wanted to open a restaurant and I wanted to open up my restaurant in Monterey [County]”—but admittedly arrived earlier than planned.
Like many out-of-work chefs, Ponce turned to Instagram. Joining forces with his father, brothers Miguel and Carlos, cousin Morelia Enriquez and family friend Megan Larson, to launch Heatwaves.
Viral photos of the spicy sandwiches quickly spread across Instagram after their first pop-up last fall. Twice-monthly pop-ups sold out almost instantly. “There are a lot of repeat guests, not just one timers,” he says. He even cites diners driving down from San Jose to snag a sandwich.
Indeed, fried chicken sandwiches have emerged as a trending taste during the pandemic. Suddenly the crispy sandwiches are all over local menus. Many attribute the surge in popularity to the growing demand for comfort food during a very uncomfortable time.
There’s a whole world of fried chicken styles, of course, but hot chicken has proven one of the most popular. The dish originated in Nashville, Tennessee, where the Prince family’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is often credited with creating the recipe, which sees the crispy chicken dredged in a spicy cayenne pepper paste. Fresh from the fryer, the breaded bird’s hot temperature melts the paste and gives serious spice that builds with each bite.
But don’t be fooled by their ubiquity—fried chicken sandwiches are an art.
Ponce approached the humble fried chicken with the same careful attention he applied while working in Bouchon’s Michelin-starred kitchen. “When you work at a Michelin-starred restaurant, it has to be perfect every time.” He thoughtfully considered each component and credits the recipe for building the brand’s fervent following, alongside some social media marketing savvy from Larson.
The new cafe will naturally spotlight the signature sandwich—“If you’re good at something, why change?” says Ponce—but favorites from past pop-ups will return too. Look for “Smackaroni” mac and cheese, “Tsunami” fries (loaded with fried chicken, coleslaw and pickles) and a creamy banana pudding from the menu of “comfort food with coastal influence.”
Ponce teases exciting additions to the menu too. Mornings will feature coffee, pies and pastries, leveraging Ponce’s pastry skills. Sundays will debut “Sunday Service,” featuring chicken and waffles. The cafe will also serve beer and wine.
Heatwaves Cafe will open in the space vacated by Cafe Ariana in downtown Pacific Grove earlier this month.
The Favaloro family—Marie, Nino, Ariana and Anthony—opened Cafe Ariana in 2012, shortly after a fire devastated their restaurant, Favaloro’s Big Night Bistro. While repairs for the bistro were underway, Ariana and Anthony urged their parents to open a casual eatery in the vacant location next door. Marie and Nino closed Favaloro’s Big Night Bistro in 2018 and the closure of Cafe Ariana this past weekend marked the end of an era for the family in downtown Pacific Grove.
For the past month, Ponce worked alongside the Favaloros to familiarize himself with the layout of the kitchen. He’s been grateful for the family’s hospitality as he prepared to transition the space to its next chapter. “I have dinner with them every night. They treat me like family.”
For updates on Heatwaves’ new cafe and upcoming pop-ups, follow @heatwaves831 on Instagram.
Heatwaves • 543 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove • heatwaves831.com