A longtime Atlanta favorite, Papi’s Cuban and Caribbean Grill first opened in Midtown in 2003 as a modest sandwich shop called Papi’s East Cuban.
Since then, the menu has expanded over time, and the locations now number seven, including a busy outpost at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The newest, which recently opened at Emory Point, marks the evolution of the concept, with a lively space that includes a separate bar area and a covered patio.
In addition to the signature East Cuban-style sandwich, and classics such as roast pork, arroz con pollo and black beans and rice, the current menu includes the likes of pollo vaca frita, churrasco steak and mofongo con camarones. And the bar offers a variety of Cuban and Caribbean cocktails, along with spirits, wine and beer.
Beyond its obvious success as a local business, Papi’s history is a moving saga of the refugee experience in America. Founder Reynaldo “Rey” Regalado, a native of the area around Santiago de Cuba, fled Cuba in a fishing boat in 1991, and became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
The restaurant was named in homage to Regalado’s late father, Rey Sr., who passed down many of the recipes used at Papi’s from the beginning, including a treasured family recipe for pork marinade.
At lunchtime last week, Regalado was perched at a table near the back of the dining room at Papi’s Emory Point, where he talked about his Cuban roots and path to becoming an Atlanta restaurateur.
“I was a mechanical engineer in Cuba,” Regalado said. “When I came to Atlanta, my first job was delivering Dunkin’ Donuts. After that, I had several jobs, until I opened my own contracting company.
“But, always, in the back of my mind was opening a restaurant to present the food of my family and from the east side of the island. And the thing I noticed was that most people were from Havana and not many people were from Santiago.”
While Papi’s serves dishes influenced by countries from around the Caribbean, Regalado is most proud of the distinctive cuisine of his family’s region of Cuba.
“It’s why I named my first restaurant in Midtown Papi’s East Cuban,” he said. “I’m from the countryside, and we have a different way of cooking. We use shredded pork instead of sliced pork on our sandwiches, more like Southern barbecue, so that worked out for me.
“The Rey’s Cuban sandwich, the ropa vieja, the pollo vaca frita, the arroz con pollo and the masitas de puerco are signatures of things we like to eat.”
From the beginning, Papi’s was a family business, with Regalado cooking in the kitchen with his sister and his uncle. But, nowadays, his wife, Teresa, is the executive chef, and Regalado has an experienced hospitality team to help run the company.
“I have learned so much,” Regalado said. “When I started, I had no experience in hospitality. So now we are creating a team. And I’m just so grateful for Atlanta.
“This is the only place I know besides Cuba, because I came straight here. I spent only two days in Miami, and then I was sent here. I feel so glad. It worked out beautifully.”
1540 Avenue Place, Decatur. 404-320-0165, papisgrill.com.
More images from a First Look at Papi’s at Emory Point
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