Fat Papi in Paradise

Spring break travel reveals the long arms of Virginia.

Illustration by David Hollenbach.

The sign outside the pickled greek, a restaurant in Christiansted, the biggest town on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said “Homemade Ice Cream,” which just happened to be what my family and I were searching for. We pulled in. The owner, a friendly billy goat of a man and a rolling stone with family roots in Greece (the Peloponnese region, south of Sparta) via Arkansas, who goes by Papi, pulled two vats out of the freezer and started to talk, as he is wont to do. He also likes to dance among the tables, and the drinks at the bar are named after him, too: A “Papi” is dark rum and Diet Coke, while a “Fat Papi” is dark rum and regular Coke. Turns out Papi, whose recipes came down from his grandmother, invented his signature baklava ice cream himself to make use of his leftover desserts. As he scooped me up a bowl, I told him about my love of Poseidon Bakery’s galaktoboureko, Greek custard in phyllo, which I used to haul back to Richmond by the box-load when I lived in New York City. “You’re from Richmond?” he said. “I left a kidney in Richmond.” Gulp.

With steady 80-degree days, a rainforest that opens onto beaches, and an air of anything goes, St. Croix, like Papi, offers up an intoxicating mix of paradise and chaos. We stayed in an artist’s cottage on the sunny and arid east end of St. Croix, not far from Point Udall, the easternmost point in the U.S. “Southern Breezes” has mahogany floors and glass-paned doors that fold back on hinges, opening onto a terrace above a cerulean bay with waves crashing on a wild, unmanicured beach directly below. In the yard, an orange-lime tree is studded with fruit that works wonders with the island’s barrel-aged Cruzan rum. Geckos and iguanas roam the grounds. At night, the sky is a star-spangled riot.

In a play on Jimmy Buffet’s 1978 hit, a nearby burger joint on a bend of the main northside road bills itself Cheeseburgers in America’s Paradise. Paradise here is rough around the edges. There’s no recycling, electricity randomly crashes, and you drive on the British side of the road, dodging the free-range chickens—auburn and iridescent green with buff-colored chicks—and Indian mongeese (imported to rid the island of snakes), both of which run rampant. The bar at the heart of this tented ramshackle restaurant, home to a mean mahi mahi sandwich as well as a juicy burger, features rummy blender drinks, life’s blood on an island that boasts the newly arrived Captain Morgan distillery as well as the centuries-old Cruzan rum operation.

Times were not always so easy on the island, which lived under six different flags before the U.S. bought it for $25 million from Denmark in 1917 to be part of its defenses against German U-boats. It had been a dense patchwork of brutal sugar cane plantations, where Danish overlords worked a vast labor force of African slaves. The stone towers of windmills still dot the island, like mileposts of history. Later, a massive, hideous, now-defunct gas refinery attracted workers from around the Caribbean, adding considerably to the island’s melting pot. Rum, a fermented byproduct of sugarcane, was—and is—the salve.

At the scruffy, open-air La Reine Chicken Shack, locals down Carib beers with lime and a shot of blackstrap rum, a molasses derivative and throwback to the naval rums of old. Out back, chickens slow-roast on long spits over a bed of coals. Pit-cooked pork comes in juicy chunks with crackling, and the soulful establishment also dishes up heaps of goat, kingfish, conch, casava and, for the truly bold, bull foot soup.

Meanwhile, Papi has cornered the market in Greek food on St. Croix. His baklava ice cream hits the tongue with a rich blend of toasted honey and wheat and, to me, puts cookies ‘n’ cream to shame. Another specialty, a roasted-vegetable dish that Papi calls Yia Yia (“Grandmother”) Stew and seasons to his taste with oregano, mustard and a secret ingredient, is so variable that, as the menu says, he has to describe it on the spot because “we still don’t really know what it is.” Not that Papi is a big secret keeper. The mystery ingredient, he confides to me for publication, is Cavender’s All Purpose Greek Seasoning, which is made in—umm—the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. No kidding.

As you might expect, the jovial Papi has struck up many a friendship on the island, including one with some Virginia gents with financial concerns there. When Papi needed health care, they invited him to stay with them in Richmond, where doctors successfully relieved him of a tumorous left kidney and then dispatched him back to this wee patch of scruffy paradise to keep making Yia Yia stew and ice cream.

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