February 19th, 2021

Rooted in McMinnville: Ricardo Antúnez

Pura Vida chef and owner, Ricardo Antúnez stands in front of the bar in his restaurant, Pura Vida Cocina.
Pura Vida chef and owner, Ricardo Antúnez

It’s quiet inside Pura Vida Cocina on McMinnville’s Third Street. Tables are pushed to the side in a space that normally seats 55 guests in a non-COVID setting. Owner Ricardo Antúnez looks out the front window to see five tented tables with space heaters where he can seat a limited number of guests. He sat 40 outside with COVID restrictions during last summer’s Dine Out(Side).

“We are able to keep everybody safe and still do a good job with the (restaurant) experience,” he says. “We have to pay a lot of credit to the locals in the area. They’re well-traveled individuals who are appreciative of really good food. So, that keeps us in business when the tourists aren’t around.”

Pura Vida has been around for seven years at its 313 NW Third St. location. It originally shared a storefront with a small art gallery, then eventually expanded to the full available space. Throughout that time, Ricardo has developed a menu that delivers Central American foods with a style all his own.

Ricardo began his culinary career at age 13, helping his mother “sling tacos” in her Rio Vista, Calif., restaurant. He progressed to the respected California Culinary Academy and later worked in Mexico and the Caribbean “which was super exciting. I draw back on those experiences to reach some of those flavors that I use here.”

Ricardo also partners at Xicha Brewing Co. in West Salem, a taproom and restaurant with a Pan-Latin focus. And while he’s proud of Xicha’s success, his passion is Pura Vida – pure life.

Q: What was your dream in creating Pura Vida and are you close to reaching that dream?

Ricardo: Initially the idea was to create a place that was very diverse, very inclusive in what we offered and still be true to the food that I wanted to make which was not street food, but not high end. My background is very high end, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.

I wanted to make stuff I like to eat with flavors that were a little different and very approachable to somebody who maybe doesn’t know some of those things. I think we’ve executed that really well.

Q: Describe for people who have not dined here. What traditions, what cultures are you trying to present?

Ricardo: I like to think that we’re not authentic to any one thing because I think some people come in here expecting “Well, this is not a Peruvian dish, or this is not a Salvadorian dish. This is not a Colombian dish.”  I say, well, yeah, I never said it was. We use flavors from there and we try to make them the way we want to make them while still keeping it representative of what that culture is. It’s not necessarily authentic, but that’s nothing I’m trying to do.

Yeah, this is Central American, Peruvian, and Mexican food all mixed in together to make whatever Pura Vida is now. We use a lot of French and Spanish techniques, too, so it’s really cool to have a really solid backbone to our food. That’s always very important to me because that’s where everything starts. Yeah, you could throw a bunch of flavors and stuff on top of stuff, but you need to have a solid base.

Q: You now have an established menu. How do you keep your creativity alive?

Ricardo: Yes, the menu has gotten to a place where it’s kind of set. That’s why we throw in a lot of specials to be able to play around with some of the things that are coming in seasonally with some of our farmers and from the ocean. We still try to keep it very seasonal, even if it’s a small portion of our menu. It gives us a little bit of diversity and a little bit of fun.

Q: What’s the typical reaction from your customers?

Ricardo: It’s like, wow, where have you been? Can I take you home with me? That kind of thing. That’s a really good feeling. We have customers that regularly come in all the way from Portland. I appreciate the compliments and it’s a great feeling. It makes the staff really feel good about what we’re doing here.

Q: What keeps you rooted in McMinnville?

Ricardo: Definitely, it’s the community. It’s great to be able to walk down the street and know people and be able to have a conversation about the future of McMinnville and the future of Third Street. That gives you a sense of home, right? You root yourself and you make it home. That’s what I feel like I’ve been doing here over the last seven years because this will always be my home base.

Dan Shryock

Dan Shryock regularly writes about McMinnville and Yamhill County.