Restaurant Spotlight - Papa Juan’s Stefano’s and Sons

Article by Jane Claspy Nesmith
Photography by Justin Fox

If you’ve lived in Cedar Rapids very long, you’ve probably heard of Papa Juan’s, the Mexican Restaurant with the great Margaritas. Established in 1972, it’s the oldest Mexican restaurant in Cedar Rapids. At a recent visit, we found out that Papa Juan’s, now known as Papa Juan’s/Stefano’s and Sons, also has an extensive menu with Mexican, Italian, and American items--all cooked by two certified chefs. And the Margaritas? Still wonderful.

When we arrived, we were seated at the new Chef’s Table in the dining area. Co-owner and Chef, Steve Van Fleet told us that this table is available for special Chef’s Choice meals--for a set price, 4-6 people can enjoy a multi-course meal specially prepared for them.

Not too many casual restaurants can offer a dining option like this. But Papa Juan’s can: besides Chef Steve, the Italian chef who has more than 30 years in the restaurant business under his belt, the restaurant is now home to Van Fleet’s son Executive Chef and Co-owner Jason Finney, who graduated from Kirkwood’s Culinary Institute. Both pride themselves on making fresh food from the best ingredients all at a great price. Continuing in the family business is also the youngest son, Jonathan, serving as the Front House Manager.

Before our appetizers arrived, we tried some Margaritas. Well-known around the area, these Margaritas are prepared with Tequila, Triple Sec, and Papa Juan’s special recipe lime juice--no sweet and sour mix used here. We also tried the Bourbon-infused Margarita, a smooth and smoky version of the popular drink.

Appetizers started with Papa Juan’s signature cheese crisp. “It’s one of our more popular items,” said Chef Steve. A fried tortilla topped with marinated chicken breast, peppers, onions, and tomatoes and all covered in melty cheese, this appetizer had lots of flavor.

From the Italian side, we tried the bruschetta. Toasted Italian bread topped with seasoned tomatoes, capers, vidalia onions and mozzarella--they were light and savory.
We wanted to try some entrées from both Mexican and Italian menus. Our first dish was Italian: sausage cacciatore, served on a bed of angel hair pasta. With a combination of sautéed vegetables--onion, peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes--and mild Italian sausage, the cacciatore was delicious and fresh-tasting. “You won’t find this on the menu of any other Italian restaurant in town,” said Chef Steve.

Anisette Chicken is another unusual menu item that we loved. This recipe was created inadvertently when a bottle of anisette liqueur spilled into some alfredo sauce Chef Steve was cooking. The combination is a winner: the slightly sweet and sprightly flavor of the anisette adds a lightness to the creamy alfredo sauce. Chef Steve serves it over a ham, spinach, and ricotta-stuffed chicken breast.

Mexican entrées can’t be ignored at Papa Juan’s. Chef Jason brought us out one of his specialties: Carnitas with black beans and asada potatoes. The pork used for the carnitas is seasoned and then slow cooked for hours. “When I take it out, it just falls apart,” says Chef Jason. It was delicious wrapped in warm tortillas with sautéed peppers and onions.

A sizzling plate of fajitas--both chicken and tender steak along with onions and peppers--made delicious wraps with warm tortillas. The guacamole, brought out along with other toppings, was made right here.

We couldn’t leave without trying the Southwest taco, a recipe created by Chef de Cuisine Pat Graham, who also works in the kitchen. This taco features two warm white corn tortillas topped with chorizo, fajita beef, and pico de gallo--made fresh in-house, of course. The idea here is to pick up the first tortilla and fillings and eat it. Anything that falls out gets caught in the other tortilla and-voilà--another taco!

While Papa Juan’s/Stefano’s and Sons have a great location in Cedar Rapids’ northeast quadrant, they’re also starting to bring their food to diners in different locations. P.J.’s Catering, owned by Chef Jason Finney, provides a different approach to catering. “Instead of offering a standard list of choices, I can tailor the menu for the event,” says Chef Jason. Popular items include pasta, tacos, and pulled pork.

Watch for Papa Juan’s/Stefano’s and Sons at local events this summer: they’ve outfitted a food trailer to offer breakfast burritos and tacos at the Freedom Festival, Ragbrai, and other events.

Papa Juan’s Stefano’s and Sons
5505 Center Point Rd NE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52402
319.393.0258

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