Looking last month at the 132-year-old, hand-carved mahogany doors newly installed at the entrance of Papi, the upscale Puerto Rican restaurant and bar on Exchange Street slated for a soft opening at the end of December, co-founder LyAnna Sanabria beamed with pride.
The tall, gracefully arched twin doors – one of many charming touches Sanabria and her co-founder, Joshua Miranda, have planned for Papi – had been shipped from their original home outside a building in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The previous door for the storefront at 18 Exchange St. had swung out to block the window view for one of the tables inside, which Sanabria would not accept.
Maybe more importantly, the Old Port building’s original door “just wasn’t Catholic enough,” Sanabria said with a devilish grin.
“Papi is going to be very old-school San Juan, but bringing in a more modern vibe. We’re going to create a space of uninhibited Puerto Rican joy,” explained 32-year-old Sanabria, whose father is from Vega Baja in Puerto Rico.
Papi is the latest addition to the area’s growing and diversifying Latin food scene, a reflection of diners’ appetites for new culinary experiences that also provides the local Latino community the comforting tastes of their culture. While Mexican cuisine has long held significant space in the restaurant scene, here and nationally, representation of other Latin American countries on Maine menus is more recent.
Tu Casa started serving Salvadoran food in Portland’s East End in 2000, and others have followed, including Flores, Sal de la Tierra and Dos Naciones. The past five years have brought Maiz, with its Colombian street food, and The Lost Fire, an Argentinian steakhouse in Kennebunkport. Cafe Louis, which opened last year in South Portland, takes inspiration from Costa Rica, and brand-new Portland bar Cabana has a cocktail menu derived from the Dominican Republic.
Between 2010 and 2020, Maine’s Latino population has grown 57 percent, according to U.S. Census data. Still, as of 202o, Latinos made up only 2 percent – about 27,000 people – of Maine’s total population.
But seeing more particular Latin cuisines represented in Portland restaurants doesn’t necessarily mean the population is growing quickly. Hillary Dixon Canavan, restaurant editor for food and dining website Eater, said she feels the attitude of the host community is more of a factor.
“It’s really more about the dining community’s interest and appetite and openness to the experience,” Canavan said, adding that focused-cuisine restaurants like Papi opening “means only good things” for the future of Portland’s Latin restaurant scene, and for the town’s food options in general. “The more any given restaurant can prove that there’s an audience for that specificity, for a particular vision, that makes room for other people to try that.”
Miranda and his team certainly had a specific vision.
“We didn’t want people to think this was going to be some kind of tiki bar on a beach,” said Miranda, who also owns Old Port Italian restaurant Via Vecchia and cocktail bar Blyth & Burrows, also on Exchange Street. “We wanted to build a place that didn’t look like anywhere else in Portland, but that still looks like it’s been there a while. Like it’s a hole-in-the-wall in Old San Juan.”
Puerto Ricans living in the Portland area said they’re nearly giddy with anticipation.
“I don’t think anyone is as excited about Papi opening as I am,” said Mimi Gabes, 35, of Portland, who was raised in Puerto Rico until she was 14. “I’m sure a lot of other Puerto Ricans in the diaspora feel the same. I’m really excited just to meet people that are Puerto Rican or are just attracted to that culture. It’s like craving your culture and your people.”
AUTHENTIC, TRANSPORTIVE FOOD
Members of the Latino community say they enjoy their lives in Maine, for sure. “Portland kind of reminds me of Puerto Rico in a way,” said Gabes. “The pace of life, and the people being so nice and warm, and obviously we’re by the ocean, so that helps.”
But when you’ve been raised on a cuisine that’s hard to find in your new home, your desperate cravings can lead to frustration.
Edwin Bonés, 62, of Old Orchard Beach, is a full-blooded Puerto Rican who moved to Maine from Springfield in 1984 and soon fell in love with the area.
“I called my friends, and I was like, ‘I figured out where the yellow brick road ends, and it’s Maine,’” he said. “I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was being up here. The one lacking thing for me was the food. There was no Puerto Rican food up here and that has always been an issue for me.”
Bonés recalled driving regularly down to Puerto Rican restaurants in Springfield for his fix of pasteles, slow-roasted pork pernil, and the blood sausage morcilla.
“It’s feel-good food for me, what I grew up on,” he said.
In the last five years, though, pan-Latin restaurant Quiero Cafe opened locations in Saco and Portland, which Bonés loves, and the cafe owners also launched Pacifico, a fine-dining Latin American restaurant in Saco.
“I’ve been up here since 1984, and here we are almost 40 years later, and I’m finally finding Spanish food, other than your typical Mexican restaurant,” Bonés said. “I’m so excited I’m ready to cry. It makes you feel welcomed.”
Quiero Cafe and Pacifico co-owner Alejandra Herrera said helping the Latino community reconnect with native flavors and cultures was a big reason she and husband-partner Carlos Guzman opened their restaurants.
“It fills my heart, to be able to provide that and make them feel like they’re not alone,” said Herrera. “And it keeps them from feeling homesick.”
Chilean-born Herrera and Guzman, from Colombia, feature dishes from different Latin American cuisines in their restaurants, like Peruvian ceviche and the beef stir-fry lomo saltado; Chilean-style hot dogs topped with sauerkraut, guacamole and mayo; and Colombian sweet corn arepas.
“We have a customer who is from Brazil who comes in for the passion fruit juice,” Herrera said. “She gets a little taste of home here.”
Earlier this year in Brunswick, Martha Leonard and her Colombian husband, Niky Watler, opened the second location of their Colombian street food restaurant, Maiz. The couple had opened Maiz in Portland in 2017.
“I think people are interested in (Colombian food), so there’s a space for it,” Leonard said. “There are a lot of Colombian people living in Maine, and maybe in parts that are more remote, so this Midcoast location has been nice to connect with those communities. It’s that much easier for some people to get to.”
MEMORIES FROM THE MOTHERLAND
Sanabria said she and Miranda didn’t fully realize the level of interest in Portland for a Puerto Rican bar and restaurant until October, when Papi held a pop-up event at Via Vecchia to raise money for disaster relief in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona.
“When we did our pop up, 150 people came,” Sanabria said, her eyes still wide with surprise. “We were expecting maybe 20. We had Puerto Ricans coming from Massachusetts. And the vibe was real. They felt that borinquen (native Puerto Rican) hospitality.”
The food at Papi, conceived by Puerto Rican Chef Ronnie Medlock with consulting assistance from former Sur Lie executive chef and Puerto Rico native Emil Rivera, will include some of the Caribbean island’s most crave-worthy dishes, like pernil, chuletas, pinchos, empanadas, tostones, plantain-based mofongo, and alcapurrias.
“I think we’ll deliver in flavor and authenticity,” said Rivera. “When they take a bite of a dish, it’ll be as if it actually brings memories back to them from the motherland. I think it’ll be a beacon of hope and represent the vibe of the island as well. Like an oasis for us.”
“Puerto Ricans are masters of frying,” said Sanabria, adding that she expects the authentic menu will also prove approachable to diners new to Puerto Rican cuisine. “These are carb-forward comfort foods that have a lot of spices, but they’re not spicy. So it’s super-accessible to the American palate.”
As Papi’s beverage director, Sanabria designed a drinks program featuring updated versions of standards like the piña colada, and for the holiday season, coquito or Puerto Rican eggnog.
Some of Papi’s beverages may be eye-opening for the unindoctrinated. “Puerto Ricans drink a lot of gin and scotch, different things from what people might think,” Sanbria said giving examples of such unlikely combinations as coconut milk and gin, and scotch and tamarind.
“But the thing is,” Sanabria said, leaning in with her voice lowered conspiratorially, “they’re really good.”
The slender, petite Sanabria – an accomplished mixologist who helped design the beverage program at Pacifico in 2020 and helmed the bar at Chaval as well – also plans to wield a custom-made machete behind the bar to hack open coconuts for coconut milk-based Puerto Rican cocktails.
“In the afternoon, you’ll have your Tito Puente playing, you can have your arroz con pollo and an easy drink,” Sanabria said, laying out how a typical day at Papi might unfold. “Then by 10 p.m., let’s move some of the tables aside and turn the music up and play some Bad Bunny and reggaeton and bring out the bottle of rum. That kind of flow of night, which is really Puerto Rican, is what we’re after.”
“Having that representation (with Papi) is a breath of fresh air,” said Rivera, adding that he’d dreamt of opening a Puerto Rican restaurant of his own in Maine for years. “We’re proud and supportive of our heritage. And Papi is really quite a find – somebody is understanding the relevance of these cultures and showcasing them in a respectable manner.”
“The Latin population is very much starting to raise its head” both in Maine and nationwide, Sanabria said. “We are the biggest workforce in the United States. But so often we are the back of the house, we are in the garden. You don’t see our actual faces in the front, so it’s like we don’t exist. But the country has been talking about race a lot over the last few years, and that has opened up a lot of opportunities for more diversity.
“And right now, we’re trending,” Sanabria said.
“The Latin community has been growing,” said Herrera. “I used to join groups to meet Latin people, and now I see them everywhere.”
Herrara said Papi, like her own restaurants, is another opportunity to expose area residents to authentic Latin American foods and educate them about Latino culture.
“We’re like ambassadors, promoting our culture and opening minds about food and traditions,” Herrera said. “I just hope that it keeps growing for the better and that we help to change the (negative) image that people have about Latin people sometimes. We’re here to work as hard as anybody and make it a better place.”