By Art Huckabee
The recent thawing of diplomatic relations with Cuba has had my chilled winter mind dreaming about sunning on a pristine white sand beach while drinking a Cuba Libre and smoking a fine cigar. While that dream, like warmer weather, may still be a few months, if not years away, one can sample the cuisine of Cuba in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward at Papi’s Cuban and Caribbean Grill.
Founded by a Cuban immigrant, Papi’s, pronounced “poppies” and Spanish for “daddy’s” is a popular place; a recent weekend late afternoon visit found the fairly spacious restaurant more than half full and by 5:30 p.m., there was a wait.
The menu is one of those big laminated catalogs with lots of colorful pictures. Ours had that movie theater floor tackiness that could be easily remedied with a little Windex cleaning. There are all of the usual suspects, Cuban sandwiches, chicken and rice and black bean soup, to name a few, as well as weekday specials and specialties of the house. There’s also an extensive cocktail menu in case you’d like to get your Mojito on.
We ordered a sampling of appetizers including the empanadas platter, the Papa Rellena and a Cuban version of the Puerto Rican favorite, Mofongo. The empanadas were large with a flakey crust and fillings of ground beef, shredded chicken, ham and cheese and cream cheese with guava. The shredded chicken was particularly flavorful and the cheese with guava had a nice sweet note. The Papa Rellena, a stuffed potato ball or croquette, was good but a little salty, and needed more of the ground beef and onion filling. The Cuban style Mofongo, sometimes called Fufu, was a creamy mash of plantains, garlic, onion and bits of pork but also on the salty side.
Papi’s large entrees will satisfy the hungriest of diners. The Vaca Frita and the Pollo Vaca Frita, were easily the hits of the meal. Vaca Frita in Spanish literally means, “fried cow.” Both dishes, the cow and the chicken version, were tender, shredded meat with garlic, onions and spices of cumin and oregano. The Pollo Vaca Frita also had green and red peppers in the dish giving it a bit more of a Spanish flare. The grilled fish had good flavor needing perhaps a hotter pan to crisp the skin and make the flesh just a little flakier. The New Year’s resolution dieter in our crowd pronounced the grilled chicken a winner as well.
The only dish that slightly disappointed was the Masitas de Puerco. This is the dish that first won me over to Cuban food. It’s a simple preparation of fried pork chunks and when done correctly, it’s crispy tender porcine goodness. Papi’s version came up a bit short with the pork cooked well past its tender moment.
The entrees come with an assortment of sides from tasty black beans to flavorful yellow rice to plantains two ways; Tostone’s, unripe fried green plantains and Maduros, fried ripe plantains; the latter were caramelized perfectly. Onions accompany most dishes so if you’re not an onion fan make it known when you order.
The busy wait staff was friendly and attentive when present, even giving Spanish lessons to the two aspiring Spanish speakers at our table.
We opted for one dessert to share. The tres leches was muy delicioso according to all at our table who sampled it.
Until you can dust off your two-toned Ricky Riccardo jacket and fly off to Havana, Papi’s is a good local destination for Cuban cuisine.
Papi’s Cuban and Caribbean Grill is located at 216 Ponce de Leon Ave., (404) 607-1525 or papisgrill.com.
Art Huckabee is one of Yelp’s Elite Reviewers, as well as a pilot and food lover. Send feedback to TastingIntown@AtlantaINtownPaper.com.