When I walked into Papaito Rotisserie’s new San Leandro location, bachata music played over the speakers, a soccer game aired on TV, and the friendly manager, Joseph Murillo, came out of the kitchen to shake hands, introduce himself, and offer recommendations from the menu.
With its welcoming staff, vibrant interior, and inviting patio, it’s easy to forget that this restaurant is within an office complex. This isn’t your typical lunchtime sandwich or salad shop. In fact, Papaito is unlike any other restaurant I’ve come across in the East Bay.
Part of what makes Papaito so unusual is that it fuses various Latin American cuisines so seamlessly. Papaito doesn’t bill itself under any specific cuisine, calling itself only “healthy Latin American fusion,” so it took a little bit of inquiring to figure out the inspiration for Papaito’s menu.
Here’s what I learned: Papaito, whose original location is in Hayward, is a joint venture between Marcelo Estrada and Victor Caicero. The two met during Estrada’s 15-year career as a general contractor, where he helped others, including Caicero, open restaurants. They’ve been good friends for a long time, almost like brothers — or “papaítos,” as Estrada would say back in his native Guatemala. Estrada grew up on the coast of Guatemala and in Guatemala City, where his mother ran a catering business. “I was the sous chef,” he laughed. His mother’s business specialized in grilled meats — not too different from the ones you’ll find on the menu at Papaito today, with the addition of a few twists he learned during his time at San Francisco Cooking School. Caicero, meanwhile, grew up in Veracruz, Mexico. So you’ll find plenty of items on the menu with Guatemalan roots, a few with Mexican influences, and touches from Colombia, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Peru.
The roasted chicken, for instance, is made using special ovens from Peru — ones specifically designed for making pollo a la brasa. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the meat was richly flavored with herbed butter. The meat even had a hint of sweetness thanks to carrots, onions, and apples stuffed inside the chicken while roasting. And as you’d expect from a good rotisserie chicken, the skin was beautifully caramelized. As someone who rarely chooses chicken over other meats, I’d even say the chicken alone is worth a trip to Papaito. Try pairing it with the chi-pou-tle sauce, a uniquely spelled smoky Mexican-inspired dipping sauce made with pasilla peppers.
The beef rib had a nicely charred crust around the edges, and the meat was tender with a touch of pink inside. Per Murillo’s recommendation, I paired it with the che-michurri sauce, named after their Argentinian friend Che, who got the chimichurri recipe from his grandmother.
Lovers of crispy skin should look no further than “Da Porchetta.” Though it has the same name and looks similar to the Italian version of porchetta — that is, a rolled up, roasted pork belly with golden-brown skin — Estrada is quick to explain that this dish has roots in Guatemala, not Italy.
“We’ve been roasting meats for a while down south, too,” he said. “I grew up roasting and eating pigs.”
Regardless of its origin, it’s a solid example of skin-on roasted pork belly. The skin was crisp all around, yet delicate enough to shatter with each bite. The meat, meanwhile, was juicy and succulent, without being too greasy like some versions of porchetta can be. I particularly enjoyed pairing it with the French sauce, which is Papaito’s take on barbecue sauce made with red wine, figs, and blueberries.
All three meats are worth a try, so I recommend bringing a friend (or papaíto) along so you can try a couple of meats and share. They’re served a la carte, so you’ll want to add on a few sides to help fill out the meal. Most are gluten-free, and many are vegan. My favorite was the corn salad, which, to my (pleasant) surprise, came out warm. Each kernel of fresh corn was kissed with a hint of smoky flavor. A touch of herbs kept the salad feeling light, making it a good palate cleanser. Other notable sides include the roasted cauliflower, which came with a creamy sauce on the side studded with mint, red pepper flakes, and shaved almonds.
Solo diners may want to go for one of the entrées, like the lomo papaito. It’s a take on the Peruvian lomo saltado, but instead of fries, it’s served with nutty brown rice. The strips of beef were juicy and tender, complemented by the green “Piquante” sauce that added a kick of fresh herbs. The beef was mixed with the natural sweetness of bell pepper and onion, the creaminess of roast potatoes, and the zestiness of pickled red onion for a satisfying meal.
“Da Burger” offers a gluten-free take on a burger, where flattened fried plantains stand in for the bun. The concept reminded me of the Puerto Rican jibaritos (steak sandwiches served on fried plantains) you’d find in Chicago. Grilled pineapple adds tart, smoky flavor. Kale-quinoa salad takes the place of lettuce, while optional cheese adds creaminess. I also enjoyed the pickled carrots served on the side. But perhaps because the burger was a little under-seasoned, I found it didn’t shine the way other items on the menu did.
Dessert, like the rest of the menu, offers thoughtful, intriguing twists on familiar dishes. The chocolate ricotta pudding combined the airy texture and tang of ricotta with a not-too-rich dose of chocolate.
I especially enjoyed the coffee bean flan, which successfully balanced notes of caramelized sugar and bitter espresso. It’s made using coffee beans from Antigua Coffee, the neighboring coffee shop that Estrada and Caicero also own. Antigua Coffee was the first business they started together back in San Francisco, and today it has several locations throughout the Bay Area. This dessert, Estrada says, is an homage to their first business and what they hope will be a bright future for both Antigua Coffee and Papaito Rotisserie. Papaito is opening a new location in South San Francisco soon, and in 2021, the owners expect to start franchising — in keeping with their goal of bringing healthier, flavorful, and fairly priced food to the entire Bay Area.
As a contractor, Estrada said, “I was building everyone else’s dream.” Now, with Papaito, he said, “I’m gonna start building my own dream, too.”