Food & Drink

Review: The Good Times Roll at Papi Cuisine in Riverside

From the moment you walk through the doors of chef-owner Alex Perez's restaurant in the former Minnow space, it’s clear that something exciting is happening here.
Papi’s owner-chef Alex Perez. —Justin Tsucalas

Social media offers a buffet of drool-inducing food photos so appetizing that they can make your stomach growl five minutes after you’ve eaten a full meal. But as anyone who has ever used a dating app knows, what you see online is not always what you get in real life.

Papi’s owner-chef Alex Perez first rose to local culinary prominence by posting photos of the Afro-Caribbean-Latin-influenced dishes he makes on Instagram and other social media platforms. He started his professional career in Baltimore by cooking out of the shared commercial space B-more Kitchen before opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Papi Cuisine, in Fells Point in 2019.

The popularity of that corner joint—his dishes somehow tasted even better than they looked online—quickly proved so overwhelming that Perez moved the operation to the Riverside neighborhood of Federal Hill, where it opened in May in the space formerly occupied by the seafood restaurant Minnow and The Hot Dry.

From the moment you walk through the doors, it’s clear that something exciting is happening here. There’s a buzz in the large dining room and bar that’s been sadly missing everywhere during the pandemic. During our visits this summer, it seemed like many of the restaurant’s tens of thousands of Instagram followers were all there at one time. The crowds proved to be no sweat for the restaurant’s staff, which was friendly, efficient, and thoughtful during each of our meals.

Papi’s has an impressive cocktail list that, like the rest of its menu, trends toward the sweet. The Papi’s Pineapple, a rum punch with blue Curaçao served in a whole pineapple, is a show unto itself. It spews dry ice, which draws glances throughout the restaurant.

The signature fried crab cake egg roll and a Papi’s Pineapple rum punch. —Justin Tsucalas

Several of the cocktails are made with Hennessy. When we ordered a pomegranate margarita, our bartender assured us that it wasn’t too sweet, and cheerfully promised to make us a new drink if it was. She was right. The tequila, sour mix, pomegranate juice, and honey combined to make a crisply refreshing libation. About that honey. It’s clearly one of Perez’s favorite ingredients, and it’s featured throughout the menu. The salmon bites appetizer (and the entrée filet) is glazed with it, but again, not overwhelmingly so. We might have been the only ones in the place to try an appetizer in addition to the crab cake egg roll, which helped put Papi Cuisine—and Perez—on the map.

The fried rolls of cheesy crab are topped with house sauces. Like much of the food here, they’re delicious, decadent—and quite filling. At $35, they’re not cheap, but with jumbo lump going for as much as $60 a pound, is any crab dish these days?

Entrees, almost without exception, are rich, buttery, sweet, and spicy. The lamb chops, which we ordered with a honey jerk rub, were exceptional, both tender and abundantly flavorful.

The lamb chops with a side of mac and cheese. —Justin Tsucalas

A dry-aged New York strip, cooked medium-rare with a simple peppery rub, also was outstanding. Seafood is featured prominently on the menu. The crab-stuffed lobster was surprisingly bland—the breading on the crab seemed to steal flavor from both the crab and lobster meat.

A build-your-own-pasta dish was more successful. A bowl of fettucine topped with a rich Alfredo sauce was surrounded by expertly fried shrimp tossed in a spicy house sauce. The dish was delicious but impossible for one person to finish.

The sides were less even. Mac and cheese, made with four cheeses including New York cheddar and smoked Gouda, is gooey, rich, and among the best takes on the comfort food in the city. Perez’s version of traditional greens is made with kale, and it is pleasingly acidic. Seasoned fries, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts, however, were unremarkable.

A party vibe envelops the entire restaurant, which means a few things. First, everyone is having fun, including the staff, each of whom went out of their way to make sure we had everything we needed. (One friendly bartender assured us that it is okay to park in any space on the ground floor of the attached garage for two hours, even though the signage is less than clear.)

Also: This place is loud. If you’re looking for a quiet, peaceful night out, you might want to save Papi’s for another, more jovial time. But don’t pass on it completely.

During each of our visits, multiple tables were celebrating birthdays and special occasions. The guests of honor ranged in age from 10 to—well, we won’t venture a guess, but at all the parties, both kids and adults were merrily eating some of the most festive food in the city.