There’s an area of Fort Walton Beach that’s becoming sort of a restaurant district for me and my family. Over the years we’ve discovered a number of friendly, unpretentious, reasonably priced dining establishments that offer seafood, Asian, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and regional American foods, minus the crowds and parking issues that sometimes complicate eating elsewhere in Beachcomberland. They’re working on the parking, I know, and the crowds have gone home, but it’s a nice change to just drive somewhere and walk in.
Which is what we did on a recent weekend when we drove over to Racetrack Road in FoWal for lunch at Papi’s Cafe & Grill, which proudly serves Puerto Rican food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, six days a week. The restaurant is tucked away a bit off the main road, but there’s a sign, so you’ll find it.
Inside, there’s a dining area, a counter for orders and pickup, and the kitchen. The menus list breakfast and lunch/dinner options, and a blackboard shows daily specials. The baby-blue walls are hung with brightly colored prints, and the flags of Puerto Rico and the USA decorate the ceiling. You can sit at tables, or order to go. It’s pretty much a neighborhood place, where Spanish and English are spoken—sometimes in combination—and everyone seems happy to see each other.
We sat at a table and took time to study the lunch and dinner menu. I had done some online reconnaissance on what was available, so I had a general idea of what I wanted to try. The menu offers pastelillos (meat or cheese filled turnovers, sort of an app), breakfast specialties (omelets, fried eggs, breakfast sandwiches, cheese toast, etc.), fixed-price daily specials, and lunch/dinner entrees, which come with a choice of sides. There are American and Puerto Rican soft drinks, juices, water and coffee as well.
Orders are placed at the counter, but one of the staff came over to our table to answer any questions and take our orders (“You’re new,” he observed). We decided to start with alcapurrios, a green banana fritter filled with meat. My experience with green bananas has been limited—I generally wait until they’re yellow—so this would be something new.
The fritter came out smoking hot. The server brought out a squeeze bottle of mixed ketchup and mayo that’s apparently the customary condiment. The fritter was dark brown, crispy, and bursting with savory ground meat. The sauce gave it a little sweet-tart contrast. There’s also a bottle of pepper sauce on the table if you’re game. It’s a great starter, and my sometimes picky daughter ate her share.
For the main course, I ordered chicharrones de pollo (chicken cracklings), and my wife and daughter both chose carne frita (fried pork chunks—Boston butt). For sides, my wife and I got fried breadfruit and tostones (fried savory plantains). Our daughter got fries, washed down with passion fruit juice. I tried a can of Coco Rico, a fizzy coconut soda that was sweet but not too sweet—I bet it would go well with rum.
The place started to fill up, with people picking up orders, chatting, and a few families that looked to be trying something different. There’s a TV and some lively Latina music, and things are pretty relaxed and easy.
The food came. After an interval to let it cool off a bit, we ate. My chicken was cut into mid-size chunks, fried crunchy and dark, encased and tenderized in its own savory and crackling skin. I had eaten stewed and grilled breadfruit years ago in the Caribbean, but had never had it fried. It’s a bit like potato-flour bread, and very filling. The plantains taste like a mildly sweet banana. Like the chicken, the pork chunks were crisp and hot, with bits of fat on the edges to add flavor.
Other specials and entrees include chicken stew, pork chops, pulled pork, skirt steak with peppers and onions or with shrimp, grilled chicken chimichurri, and ham and cheese stuffed chicken breast. Sides include white rice with beans, yellow rice with pigeon peas, sweet plantains, mashed plantains, and fried yucca. We decided against dessert, but there’s a vanilla flan listed. The menu appears to vary with the day and the inclinations of the cooks, so you might see some surprises.
I hope to see more places like Papi’s spring up. Fort Walton Beach looks to be undergoing a renaissance, with restaurants worth seeking out.
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