When you stand outside Papi Cuisine, located in the Federal Hill section of Baltimore, and look at the sprawling restaurant that takes up a city block, it’s hard not to feel pride that this restaurant is Black-owned. But this success comes after years of chef Alex Perez paying his dues.
“When I first started out in 2014, I started as a food delivery service where I was delivering from Hunt Valley, Maryland, all the way to Washington, D.C.,” explains Perez. “But when we started getting some complaints about the food not being hot enough when it arrived, I decided to transition to private chef services and catering. And eventually, I started doing recipe ebooks and pop-ups,” he adds.
Building the Brand
Perez, who is also an artist, started using his artistic skills to design beautiful plates of his cooking and posting them on Instagram. Those mouth-watering photos started increasing his following to more than 112,000. So by the time he started doing pop-ups at the B-More Kitchen incubator, the lines were wrapped around the building.
“I had people flying out from Texas and Chicago coming to this commissary kitchen,” exclaims Perez. “They were thinking it was a real restaurant because of how good things looked on our social media, and I would have to explain that it was a pop-up that we only do on certain days,” he laments. “And I started thinking of how I could reach more people where they didn’t have to schedule a pickup or a pop-up, and that’s when my partner and co-owner, Berry Clark and I decided to open a restaurant.”
The name Papi Cuisine is a nod to his Afro-Latino heritage, with Papi being a term of endearment for daddy. Perez’s mother is an African American native of Baltimore, and his father is Afro-Latino from the Dominican Republic. He calls his cooking Afro-Latin Fusion. “I’m taking the base flavors that I learned from the Dominican Republic and I’m infusing them with different cuisines that I enjoy, like Italian, French and southern American and ultimately creating my own cuisine,” he explains. “So I’m ‘Papi,’ and it’s my cuisine,” he smiles.
Continuing the Family Tradition
Perez learned how to cook from both sides of his family. “At a young age, my grandmother on my mother’s side and my father taught me how to cook,” he says. “A lot of my influence in terms of flavors comes from my father’s side with him cooking traditional Dominican dishes. If you’ve ever watched shows like ‘Chopped,’ where you have to pull these crazy food items out of a basket and make something out of it, well, that was our real life and it wasn’t by choice,” he laughs. “I saw my father take what little we had and turn it into something amazing. And he learned that from standing in the kitchen with his mother as a child. And he passed that on to me,” he declares.
Perez also learned how to make seasoning blends from his paternal aunts and uncles. “I used to hear stories about an aunt who mixed a rub together and wouldn’t tell anybody what was in the rub, and nobody could be in the house when she was making it because with all those spices [in the air], you would start coughing,” he laughs. Perez started making his own seasoning blend and says it’s a play on a Cajun or blackened seasoning. “We want to eventually sell our seasoning, our house rub and sauces like our house aioli and the warhead sauce for our shrimp—which is a play on bang bang sauce,” he notes.
- Bold Flavors Are Harlem Chef Samantha Allonce’s Secret Sauce to Success
- Chef Emme Collins: Pleasing Palates Afro-Brazilian Cuisine in Seattle
Thriving Through the Pandemic
Perez describes Papi Cuisine as “an elevated casual space doing elevated comfort food,” adding, “I want people to feel at home when they come here, and I want them to feel my whole journey to get here through my food.” He continues, “When we opened at our first location in Fells Point, I can’t begin to tell you how much we went through with getting the liquor license and dealing with the landlords and so many other things. But we started the process in the summer of 2019 and opened February 8 of 2020.”
And with Perez’s and Clark’s backgrounds in marketing, they promoted the restaurant in a way that had people making reservations, through Open Table, three months in advance. “We have a following across the U.S., so on any given day, we’d have someone saying I’m coming in from Cali, or I’m coming in from Atlanta or coming in from Philly or D.C.,” Perez shares. “But at that time, we were only accepting reservations, so if you didn’t have a reservation, you couldn’t get in, and we weren’t doing takeout. So it was very exclusive, and there were a lot of potential customers who were left out,” he laments.
But the pandemic changed that when Papi Cuisine was forced to switch to takeout. “That just opened the floodgates because there were all these people who missed out on the pop-ups or getting reservations, who were willing to stand in these really long lines for takeout. So we didn’t just survive during the pandemic; we thrived,” boasts Perez.
They thrived so much that they needed a space larger than the 900 square feet they were in, so they moved to their current space in Federal Hill, which is four times the size. The restaurant opens daily at noon, and patrons start filing in as soon as the clock strikes 12. “Our customers are about 85 percent Black, between the ages of 25 and 55, and about 75 percent are women,” Perez states.
He continues, “Women are the ones who [publicize] everything, like letting their friends, boyfriends, and husbands know where the good food spots are. And in turn, those people tell everyone else.” Perez adds, “Our main focus is keeping our food consistent for our customers. They support us by the thousands and will go to bat for us, and that’s support you cannot buy.”
Papi Cuisine – Elevated Food and Decor
“My daughter, Brianna, has been talking about coming here because she saw it on Instagram, so we brought her here for her birthday,” says Nicole Carter of Harford County. “And my husband, Joseph, comes from a Black-owned business, so of course we want to support Black-owned restaurants.” Joseph added, “Everything in the Instagram photos looked so delicious,” as he and his family enjoyed the crab-stuffed egg rolls.
“I came here before with my friends, so since my parents are in town, I decided to bring them here to treat them to lunch,” says Deja Snowden of Gaithersburg, who was dining with Neriah Shiloh and Barbara Chandler. She adds, “I like the energy, the environment, and the food is really good! The lamb chops are my favorite thing, so I had to double back and get more,” she laughs. Carter adds, “We took pictures because we love the decor with the grass and flowers on the walls.”
Perez is happy that customers love the decor and atmosphere, but he believes the foundation of the ambiance is his artistic plating of the food saying, “I believe that people eat with their eyes first.” In fact, the dishes are plated so beautifully that you’re inclined to take pictures before you dig in. Some of the most popular dishes are the crab cake egg rolls—made with his signature warhead sauce and house-made aioli, the honey jerk lamb lollipops, which Snowden ordered, and the seafood alfredo.
“We have the honey glazed crab stuffed salmon and a gumbo as well,” notes Perez. “But when you say you’re doing gumbo in Baltimore, people start raising eyebrows,” he laughs. “But I don’t do a 20-minute rue; I do a rue that takes an hour. And the whole process takes about three hours, so it’s done the right way,” Perez says with pride. “Now they’re saying we have the best gumbo in Maryland and that it’s a contender with what you would get in Louisiana,” he exclaims.
Other menu items include the jumbo lump crab stuffed lobster, which the Carter parents ordered, and the surf and turf with lamb lollipops and shrimp over fries, which daughter Brianna ordered. The food is spiced just enough to give it lots of flavor without being overpowering. And while Perez calls the food “elevated,” the prices are a bit elevated too. But this reporter can confirm that the flavorful taste is worth every single penny.
Elevating for the Culture
There’s also a brunch menu that’s only available on Sundays and Perez says there will be a new bar menu this summer, and they’ll change up the main menu in the fall. For the future, they’re working on having a video menu where you can see the dishes being plated. It was something they tried before the pandemic shut down in-house dining. “We’ll be getting back to catering as well. And Berry and I also plan to open up more Papi Cuisine locations, so we’re in the process of forming a restaurant group,” Perez confides. “We have other concepts that we’ve been mapping out, but Papi Cuisine would be the flagship.”
The restauranteur says it’s not just about their success but about the success of other Black-owned eateries as well. “It’s important for us to patronize other Black-owned restaurants, like Blk Swan, and show our people that we’re supporting each other and there is no competition,” states Perez. “And because of the help I got from B-More Kitchen, I also want to start my own incubator so I can help other Black entrepreneurs take their food and restaurant concepts to the next level. We all need to help each other elevate.”
Papi Cuisine is located at 2 E. Wells Street, Ste. 116 in Baltimore. For more information and what’s on the menu, visit the website or Facebook page. And to see the mouth-watering, artistic platings that started the Papi Cuisine following, check out their Instagram page.