We rarely review a pop-up. We enjoy them, frequent them. We give them our money. We just don’t give them a lot of critical thought. Pop-ups are like hook-ups. Fun and fleeting. Right-here, right-now middle fingers poked squarely in the eye of commitment. By the time we start to have feelings, poof, their gone.
The closest we’ve come to scribbling about shooting-star nibbles is Bangkrak Thai Street Kitchen and wham, bam, thank you for the som tam – they pick up sticks and take off to Thailand. You fall for a food truck fling and it quickly ceases to be a thing. There was Truffle Truck. There wasn’t Truffle Truck. Such is life in the unorthodox hustle that orbits the periphery of resto-world.
So, why bother popping Papa Llama up here in the limbo that is our ‘Nibbles’ section? Especially when they just dished out their last multi-course feast at longtime residence East End Market? Well, we think Papa Llama has legs. Long legs. And those legs will likely walk them to a new Orlando home where they’ll become a more permanent part of our eatin’ scene.
We’ll make short shrift of this non-review review, saving our energy for a future opus. Simply put, husband-and-wife team Kevin and Maria Ruiz knock out a tasty brand of elevated family-style Peruvian cuisine that fills an underserved need in the City Beautiful. After eating our way through their swan-song spread, it’s evident they have the (self-taught) chops and winning personalities to carve out a long-lasting niche here.
Specifics. Upstairs. East End. We sat at a bar overlooking an open kitchen that Kevin and Maria quickly put through its paces. Dinner featured five substantial courses (BYOB), and at $60 a head it was a perfectly reasonable way to soft-splurge.
Our meal kicked off with the staple of Peruvian staples – ceviche. In this case, fresh caught Florida red snapper and octopus in a tiger’s milk cook, topped with crispy calamari. There was a lovely bit of chili heat in the tiger’s milk, which leveraged just enough stock to add depth without countering the clean sharpness of the citrus. The snapper itself was wonderfully fresh and cured in a manner we appreciate – quickly. A dish that worked on every level.
Ceviche was followed by purple potatoes slathered in a huancaína sauce buoyed by ají amarillo. It also featured avocados that had been coated in a moreish ají panca marinade and blow-torched, and what we believe was crushed cancha, or toasted corn. Although familiar with papa a la huancaína on paper, this was our first taste and one we loved. Maria told us it’s the type of dish often served to guests in Peruvian homes.
Arroz con mariscos (seafood rice) and short ribs appeared in tandem. The rice was straight-ahead enjoyable and eaten in a flash but didn’t venture far from well-prepared. On the other hand, each bite of the short rib, cooked in a cilantro and pale ale sauce and topped with crisped sweet potatoes and pickled onion, was a deep, warm embrace. Type of bite that sticks to your soul.
For dessert, deep fried sweet potato and squash picarones (fritters/donuts) arrived atop a citrus-honey infused with 5-spice-like aromatics. A light dusting of powdered sugar nudged it just over the top. A winner of a finish.
All in all, a super solid dinner from super friendly folks. Despite waddling off into the night feeling like an additional twist or two might have taken our meal into upper-echelon territory, there was zero to gripe about. We found Papa Llama’s food exceptionally honest, well executed, and highly flavorful.
Unfortunately, Papa Llama’s residency in East End has come to an end due to long term booking conflicts, but they have their sights set on additional venues – maybe even a brick and mortar of their own. We strongly encourage you to follow them on social here and here. The Ruiz’s deserve your support and you deserve to be there when they resurface.
10/7/19 Update: Welp, that was fast. Papa Llama announced this morning that they’ll be opening their first restaurant – moving to a new, permanent address at 2840 Curry Ford Road and fanning the gustatory wildfire that seems to have been set ablaze there.