Paradise Found

Old San Juan and Old Port are married in Papi, a chic and welcoming celebration of Puerto Rico
Words By Alexandra Hall

Photo by Anthony DiBiase.

The towering, 132-year-old mahogany double doors at 18 Exchange Street are causing a stir. Brought here from Old San Juan, they’re said to be out of sync with Old Port’s historic district standards—and at the time I’m writing this, the City of Portland is considering removing them. But in fact, their otherness is very much the point: Two steps inside, and those doors might as well be a portal. You’ve entered another world. One that’s a joyful, gorgeous, and fundamentally delicious ode to Puerto Rican culture.

The flavors of the food and libations at Papi are as bright and beautiful as the decor. Photo by Nicole Wolf.

It all comes at the hands of The Miranda Group, helmed by Josh Miranda—the guy behind Portland spots like Blythe & Burrows and Via Vecchia—who’s partnered here with co-founder LyAnna Sanabria. It’s no less glam or bold than Miranda’s other ventures; if anything, it’s more so. An elderly gentleman pays his check, leaves his leather barstool, and is replaced by a tattooed twentysomething, swaying to the blaring horns and timbales of Tito Puente. A mosaic of famed Puerto Ricans—an ever-evolving pastiche hand-pasted by Papi’s staff—hovers in the background. The whole place is a glorious cacophony of sounds, smells, generations, and visual feasts.

The cheluta, a fried pork chop, comes with an acidic, tangy sauce. Photo by Nicole Wolf.

And those feasts aren’t just visual. Executive Chef Ronnie Medlock has conjured up a menu of Puerto Rican greatest hits—the likes of beef empanadas and picadillo in a rich, flaky crust. Don’t bypass the cheluta, a thick and deep-flavored fried pork chop foiled with a tangy, dark green chimichurri that explodes with acidic brightness. The arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas) is impossibly aromatic and flecked with green peppers, onion, and garlic. And when the creamy flan arrives for dessert, don’t forget to dig your spoon down deep enough to capture the syrupy dulce de leche lurking at the bottom—it’s liquid gold.

Beverage director LyAnna Sanabria creates cocktails inspired by memories of Puerto Rico. Photo by Nicole Wolf.
Distressed walls washed in pale aquas and peaches flank the bar. Photo by Anthony DiBiase.

Like the restaurant, LyAnna is a hybrid of Maine and Puerto Rico; her mother is from Lewiston and her father from Vega Baja. She’s been involved with nearly every aspect of Papi’s creation, from curating the music to its interior design. “Lots of our staff are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora,” she says, “and the island has different memories for everyone.” Those memories manifest in details like the distressed walls washed in pale aquas and peaches, and the intricate tiling on the ceiling that swerves above the bar like a giant collar. That quartz bar, teeming with gold sparkles? “It’s like J.Lo eyeshadow circa 1990,” she laughs.

Executive chef Ronnie Medlock cooks up deep-flavored island favorites.

Memories inform the cocktail program, too. “My grandfather would grab a coconut, cut the top with a machete, and fill it with gin or scotch,” says LyAnna. “So the Yoni Walker [spelled on the menu as he pronounced it] is my version of a scotch and coco.” It all adds up to something more than just a restaurant. “Everybody in Maine is now invited to this beautiful place to be part of the community,” she says. “And it’s also a place for people with ties to Puerto Rico who might not otherwise feel like they have a space to go.”

Which is why, after spending time in Papi, I’m hoping those authentic Puerto Rican doors at the entry are allowed to stay put. But whatever the city decides, what counts is what lies beyond the façade: a sophisticated, unapologetically bold enclave celebrating the Puerto Rican community. And a big, joyful energy previously missing from the local restaurant scene—one from which everybody benefits. ▪

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