The first time I ate at an Atlanta restaurant was at Papi’s Cuban Grill in Midtown. It was August, 2015, and I was scrambling to find a place to live before moving here permanently three weeks later. I stumbled upon Papi’s, scarfed down one of its Cuban sandwiches, and moved on with the housing hunt.
Papi’s Midtown location holds plenty of memories for husband-and-wife owners Rey and Teresa Regalado, too. Rey recalls that, when he opened the doors in 2003 at 216 Ponce de Leon Ave., it was a 534-square-foot sandwich shop called Papi’s East Cuban. That was before he expanded, and then opened other locations. The Midtown shop also is where Rey and Teresa met in 2004. They were married two years later.
Papi’s is both a love story and a coming-to-America tale.
Growing up in Cuba, Rey dreamed of opening a food business in the U.S. He fled the island in 1990, and wound up in Atlanta, where he named his sandwich shop Papi’s (Spanish for “Daddy’s”) in homage to his father, who had died a year earlier.
Thanks to hard work and perseverance, Papi’s is in its 17th year. “You struggle and try to survive,” Rey said.
Those words apply as well to the current public health and economic crises. The Regalados shut down all their restaurants in mid-March. When they reopened for takeout, it was with 75% reduced staffing. Still, the couple prefers to focus on the positives.
“We feel blessed because, when we shut down and just did takeout, delivery was crazy. That phone was ringing nonstop,” Rey said.
Sales are back up to 85% of pre-COVID-19 numbers, and Papi’s received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Between the two factors, the Regalados are making ends meet.
Although dining rooms at Papi’s locations began staggered reopenings in early May, on-premises dining comprises only 40% of current business. However, since the Regalados added online ordering and third-party delivery services last fall, those were two tasks they didn’t have to deal with when the pandemic struck.
Although there have been plenty of other decisions — like staffing, streamlining the menu, reducing hours of operation and implementing enhanced safety measures — the pandemic “has taught us to better manage the business,” Rey said. “It has been a teaching moment, not just a struggle. We can do better with less. We can work with a smaller menu and still give the customer a good, quality product.”
He’s optimistic about the future, too.
“I feel comfortable we will surpass this. Next year, when they find a vaccine, and we can have a full restaurant, we will be in a good spot.”
PAPI’S CUBAN GRILL
Menu: abbreviated menu (Midtown restaurant’s menu is slightly more abbreviated than at other locations)
Alcohol: beer and wine; order via phone or at pickup; alcohol orders cannot be placed online
What I ordered: Cuban sampler; empanada sampler; Rey’s Cuban sandwich; pollo vaca frita; lechon asado; grilled fish fillet; flan; guava and cream cheese empanada. The Cuban sampler, which included an oversized papa rellena (potato croquette stuffed with ground beef), a pair of ham croquettes and a handful of yucca fries, was a fine way to get into the mood for Cuban food. The empanadas are the size of your hand; one sampler order is enough for four people — get the combo to try both the chicken and beef versions. The Cuban sandwich was a mouthful, with pork, ham, Swiss, dill pickles, mustard and Papi’s zesty sauce. The daylong marinade was noticeable with the slow-roasted pulled pork plate, lechon asado. If you’re not in the mood for pork or beef, the pollo vaca frita (grilled, shredded chicken breast) and the grilled fish (swai) are good options. All such plates come with sides of yellow or white rice, as well as black beans. The flan was creamy, smooth and perfectly set. Guava added tropical brightness to the sweet-savory dessert empanada.
Service options: place takeout orders by phone, online or in person; delivery through ChowNow, DoorDash and Uber Eats; on-premises dining also available
Safety protocols: follows standard guidelines; hand sanitizer available to customers throughout restaurant; screens installed between socially distanced tables; kitchen staff at socially distanced work stations
Address, phone: multiple locations (airport and Emory locations not open)
Hours: noon-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, noon-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays
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