Papi’s Mexican restaurant brings flavor to Lexington

Papi’s food is refreshing in its distinct style, which sets it apart from other Tex-Mex establishments in Lexington.

Emily Laytham

Papi’s Lex, the new restaurant and bar on Euclid Avenue, serves “Mexican and Tex-Mex” cuisine, per the official Facebook page. But the food is refreshing in its distinct style, which sets it apart from other Tex-Mex establishments in Lexington.

Located next to Charlie Brown’s in the spot that previously hosted Buenos Nachos, Papi’s inhabits a deceptively small space. Visitors must climb a set of narrow stairs to reach the main floor, which features a bar to the right and an intimate dining area to the left. The building’s ceiling slopes well overhead and is illuminated by a set of string lights that dim the venue.

The floor-level décor is vibrant, with yellow walls and deep red brick that contrast with the rustic, wood ceiling. The disparate aesthetics match well with the overall experience at Papi’s: loud and a little disorienting but fun, especially if you bring your friends.

A sizeable amount of Lexingtonians seem to do just that.

On an average night, Papi’s is full. Many of the visitors are part of a larger group, though a few families and couples can be seen seated along the sides, helping themselves to free chips and salsa.

There are TVs playing, and there may be music, too. Both are impossible to hear over the steady din of conversation.

The Papi’s menu which can be found in full on the official Facebook page is categorized into traditional sections like botanas, ensaladas and sopas (or appetizers, salads and soups). The stars of the show are the especialidades, or specialties, most of which will set you back about $13. For the location, the prices are good; for the portions, the prices are great.

Which makes sense, as affordability is a priority for the owner of Papi’s, Marcos Valdes. He knows that his location places him on the radar of many UK students, and he wants to embrace that proximity.

“I am making a point of having a lunch special every day, an affordable lunch special, $5.99,” Valdes said. “And, my portions are nice. Because those kids are hungry always.”

As for dinner, most of the specialties come with a generous helping of rice, refried black beans or salad on the side. Others are served with warm tortillas. But the specialty plates are large enough that you’ll have dinner to spare, even after piling your supplied tortillas high.

The great news is that the food at Papi’s is satisfying enough that there’s little reason to complain about ample portioning.

For example: the “Rajas Poblanas con Queso Fresco,” a mix of onions, poblano peppers and queso fresco slices in cream sauce. The short list of ingredients is misleading; the cream sauce is subtle in its spice and the queso fresco slices which come in long strips add a unique, tasty flavor.

Although quality food is obviously paramount to Papi’s employees, service is priority number one for Valdes, who is a veteran of the food service industry. He said he believes that good or bad service can make or break an experience.

“A waiter with a nice personality can make a customer come back over and over again,” Valdes said. “When the contrary happens, they just stop coming.”

With this in mind, Valdes pays particular attention to personality in the hiring process. He respects servers who make jokes and “have fun” with customers. These are also traits that he sees and values in himself.

“I’m easy to talk to,” Valdes said. “I think.”

At Papi’s, overall, the food is well-prepared, and the atmosphere is lively, but signs of growing pains exist. Though the food arrived unbelievably fast, it arrived warm, not quite hot. The chips and salsa are underwhelmingly run-of-the-mill in comparison to the proper menu.

Nonetheless, a feeling of impressive potential remains, particularly for students seeking a bite to eat with friends. Valdes’ passion for the enterprise suggests that potential may just be realized, and he’s not taking that chance for granted.

“I was lucky,” Valdes said. “The place was kind of set up. It had the tables and everything. So I didn’t have to do much, or invest much on equipment, and that was very important to me because I didn’t have money… all the stars aligned in my favor when I opened this place. I have been very lucky. I’m very blessed.”