Maria (Belen) ’11 has a special word to describe the restaurant she and her husband, Kevin Ruiz ’10, own and operate on the east side of downtown Orlando.
“It’s weird,” Maria says, unapologetically. “That’s exactly what we want. It’s just … weird, in a good way.”
The restaurant, Papa Llama, is kind of Peruvian and it’s kind of American, but it isn’t entirely either one. It’s tucked between a bank and a fitness center. Inside, Maria seats patrons at eight tables under a variety of lighting — canned, pipe-stemmed, stringed and the dance-floor type. The air is filled with a convergence of eclectic music, fun conversation, and the sizzle and scent of food grilling under Kevin’s watch.
“This is intentional,” Maria says with jars of spices over her shoulder. “It’s an experience you won’t find anywhere else — even in Latin America. And it culminates with the food Kevin cooks. I’d say this even if he wasn’t my husband: he’s amazing.”
Guests can see proof of amazing along one wall, where bottles of small-batch wines and cans of craft beer sit on open shelves. At the highest point is the happy face of the Michelin man (actual name, Bibendum, or Bib ). His commanding presence represents a pinnacle for the Ruiz’s: the coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand honor, received in June.
“It’s validation for us,” Maria says. “People who appreciate good food are beginning to understand what we’re doing here.”
For a first-time guest of Papa Llama, what are you doing?
We want to be different. You come in and see only eight tables. When we show you to a seat, we explain every dish because there are only seven or eight on the menu. This isn’t The Cheesecake Factory. You watch Kevin making everything from scratch and an art coming together from what at first might seem a bit chaotic. That’s what we’re aiming for.
Which food culture does this pay homage to?
It’s a mashup. We call it a third culture.
Explain what that means: “Third culture.”
It’s a space that exists between two established cultures. Kevin and I are both Peruvian, but we were raised in the U.S., so we struggled with our identities outside our own families. There can be a feeling that you’re too Peruvian to be American, and too American to be Peruvian. Eventually, you lean into that third space and embrace it as your own. Papa Llama is an expression of that space, that third culture.
Where did Kevin learn to cook?
He’s been cooking since he could hold a spoon. By the time he was seven, he could make ceviche and follow his grandmother’s recipes. He grew up with a single mother who had to work multiple jobs as a Peruvian immigrant. Kevin would pack her lunches and make her dinner. Cooking is his way of showing he cares about people.
When was the first time he cooked for you?
He made fried rice for me on one of our first dates. I thought, “Wow, this is incredible. He must like me. I think I’ll stick around for another date.”
Are the recipes he uses at Papa Llama from his grandmother?
The menu is in memoriam to her, but the recipes are all Kevin’s. The joy for us is that every dish is unique, with a serious focus on quality. We mention the purveyors on the menu because they’re the best, not the cheapest. It’s the same with the wines. They’re from tiny vineyards, some of them run by couples who hand-pick each grape. They care more about quality than volume, which is the same mindset as ours.
Did either of you study restaurant or hospitality management at UCF?
No, but we were able to adapt our education to what we’re doing here. Kevin has a degree in economics. Mine is accounting. Those experiences prepared us to eventually run a business and revealed a spark in both of us.
What kind of spark?
We’d been dating about a year and took capstone and cornerstone classes in the College of Business. For one project, we had to re-think a business plan for a popular restaurant. Those classes provided us a sandbox to create, fail and find our true calling.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in the restaurant business?
The highs are really high and the lows can be really, really low. You can question yourself too much, to the point of being paralyzed. It’s OK to figure things out as you go and to rely on creativity. For us the result you see is better than anything we could have envisioned.
Could you have envisioned a Michelin Bib Gourmand award on the wall?
That was a huge surprise. We went to the Michelin ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando to support our colleagues, but we didn’t bother to look at the list of winners beforehand. When they called our name, I looked at Kevin in shock and said, “I think we have to go up on stage.”
Is that your highest high?
The response from other restaurant owners that night meant a lot. When they called our name, they all gave this loud spontaneous cheer. The message to us was that they respect the fact we’re doing something different at Papa Llama, and the award on the wall reminds us every day that it’s good.
Book a table or order takeout from Papa Llama at papallamaorl.com.