An August evening at Papi, a new Puerto Rican restaurant on Exchange Street. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

My guests and I were discussing beach reading when we walked into Papi for the first time. That conversation died instantaneously in the moment it took us to step across the threshold.

“Wow. The tile!” one said. “Get a load of that curved bar,” the other remarked. My eyes were darting around the space as if I were entering REM sleep, but my response wasn’t about the visual. “Sofrito,” I said, filling my lungs and exhaling contrails of onion, pepper and cilantro. Suddenly, the only reading I was interested in was the menu.

This is not to dismiss what owner Josh Miranda and co-founder/beverage director LyAnna Sanabria have done to take a featureless former retail shop and transmute it into a breathtaking restaurant that feels at once nostalgic and dramatic. Neon strip lighting, a wall mural of black-and-white portraits of famous Puerto Ricans and barstools upholstered to look like motorcycle seats conspire to give patrons the impression that they’re definitely not in Kansas (or a Lululemon boutique on Exchange Street) anymore.

“Literally the only thing we kept was three body-length mirrors in the back. We had so many conversations with our designers to bring in tile, fabrics, wallpaper: all things that make us remember Old San Juan and also places like The Bronx or the Lower East Side, important places to ‘Diasporicans.’” Sanabria, who was raised in Vermont, said. “It was a huge task. But you know, when you start with a blank white slate, you have to do everything. That’s the downside. And the upside is also that you get to do everything.”

“It’s all custom,” Miranda added.

It almost had to be. Papi is, according to its proprietors, a unicorn of a restaurant. Its closest relatives aren’t hole-in-the-wall mofongo joints in New York, but the kind of upscale cocktail bars you can really only find in Puerto Rico itself. Co-founder/executive chef Ronnie Medlock’s menu of reimagined traditional recipes (many of which came from his own family) adds another layer of distinctiveness.


The nonalcoholic Lulo Lemon Spritz. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Medlock’s food is also calibrated well to enhance drinks, and vice versa. I could not get enough of the pairing of a thick tranche of grilled halloumi-like Spanish queso para freir with passionfruit-vinaigrette-dressed greens ($13), along with the easygoing, slightly astringent, nonalcoholic lulo spritz ($8). The combination of salt from the cheese and the rhubarb-like tang of the lulo (naranjilla) juice could not have been accidental.

Papi’s cheesy sorullo corn fritters. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Other combinations are more obvious, yet no less appealing. Order something sweet and tart, like the terrific Sadie Pop ($14) – a cheeky nod to a syrupy (and notoriously declassé) cocktail that Sanabria improves with fresh passionfruit purée, Spanish sweet vermouth and vanilla vodka – and you’ll want an order of sorullos ($9), savory, cheese-filled cornmeal balls, to nibble on as you sip.

“Ronnie’s mom used to make them for him at breakfast,” Sanabria said. “They’re deep-fried with a molten center. Simple. We don’t even eat them with sauce.”

I tried them both ways. On their own, they reminded me of craveable sleepover-night snacks from my own childhood, something like a homemade version of Combos. They also make a great vector for Papi’s four signature sauces: achiote-habanero, mojo, maple pequin and bird’s eye ($7 for ramekins of all four).

A quick dunk into either the avocado-and-cucumber-based mojo sauce or the Chino-Boriqua fusion bird’s eye chile sauce takes the dish in an exceptionally pleasant direction. And before I’m accused of going rogue with my choices, I should say that Sanabria herself approves this message: “The only sauce we really eat is mayochup on the side of an empanada, but during the menu development, I understood that sauces could be a really fun way to highlight Puerto Rican flavors,” she said.

The churrasco strip steak with yucca hash, pickled mango, blistered shishito peppers and leek puree. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Alongside the grill-charred churrasco ($30), a medium-rare strip steak rubbed with juniper berries, allspice and turmeric, the mango-based maple pequin sauce was a delight. Without it, the meat itself was a bit underseasoned, even when I managed a “perfect bite” containing a little of the yucca hash and aromatic leek puree on the plate.


Crab alcapurria ($15) also needed a tiny nudge in the direction of flavor. Medlock’s inside-out take on an empanada-like roll made with taro and cassava is inventive and executed to crisp-fried precision before being topped with fresh-picked Maine crab. The citrus served on the side shouldn’t be considered optional, though – that acid is crucial. I believe strongly that if a component is necessary for a dish to taste good, the kitchen needs to add it, or else enlist staff to deliver directions. That evening, however, our server was laissez-faire about deploying the lemon wedge.

“So you can use the lemon if you want. Lots of people do. You can also use that (the mild achiote-habenero sauce I had ordered). I don’t know. I don’t eat crab,” she said with a shrug.

The daring Manchego flan is “quite simply one of the most creative single dishes I’ve tasted this year,” according to our critic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

She was much more engaged (and helpful) when I ordered dessert, however. “OK, I need to tell you this. The flan is not a normal dessert. Sometimes people like it, and sometimes they hate it. It has olives in it,” she said.

Don’t threaten me with a sweet-savory good time, I thought, and ordered the flan ($10). “This is going to be controversial,” one of my guests said after a bite of the crumb-topped parfait. Or at least, that’s what I think he said. I was too busy spooning out whipped cream, guava paste, Manchego custard and yes, tiny green olives tossed in olive oil. I understand my friend’s reaction, but I was wowed by Medlock’s ingenuity and daring.

“If you eat it top to bottom and get all the components in there together, it’s a very Puerto Rican bite,” Sanabria said. “It’s like a breakdown of a quesito pastry that’s filled with mild cheese and fruit. If I went to see my dad, he’d pour two shots of tequila, put out a bowl of olives and maybe a quesito for something sweet.”

I’d order the flan again – it’s quite simply one of the most creative single dishes I’ve tasted this year. Although if I were in charge, I’d love to see it move it out of the “Dulce” section of the menu and into a pride-of-place location elsewhere where it’s more likely to be ordered alongside one of Papi’s excellent craft cocktails.


For me, there’s nothing better than witnessing two well-matched, conscientious experts like Sanabria and Medlock work together and reveal nuance and depth in an underrepresented, underappreciated cuisine. There’s a whole lot more here than sofrito.

The Sadie Pop, right. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****
WHERE: 18 Exchange St., Portland. (207) 808-8008.
SERVING: Monday 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; Wednesday & Thursday 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight; Sunday 4 p.m.-10 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $9-$15; large plates: $19-30
NOISE LEVEL: Aircraft carrier
VEGETARIAN: Few dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: The first thing you notice when you walk into Papi on Exchange Street is the sensational design of the space, which went from plain white box to ravishing tropical maximalist fantasy, with 42 seats and a craft cocktail menu designed by co-founder LyAnna Sanabria. It’s hard to go wrong with any of her beverage offerings, but if you want something boozy, the Sadie Pop is a tart, East Village-meets-Vieques winner, as is the bracing, puckery, nonalcoholic lulo spritz. Chef Ronnie Medlock’s menu nestles right into the negative space of the drinks menu, especially versatile nibbles like sorullos (deep-fried cornmeal balls filled with gooey cheese) and even a surprisingly hearty green salad with grilled Spanish cheese. The true measure of the restaurant’s creativity, though, is the savory-sweet Manchego flan with oil-tossed green olives and a cracker crumb topping. It’s a modern, cocktail-friendly iteration of traditional Puerto Rican flavors. Come to think of it, that’s also a good way to describe Papi itself.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

The Green Salad at Papi. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

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