Flavor: Cali-Mex at its fresh best
Ambiance: Vibrant Southwestern
I know, I know. You’re tired of all the talk about Papas & Beer. How good can one Mexican restaurant be, anyhow? There are dozens of local restaurants offering serviceable versions of South of the Border standards, so going on and on about a taco is a bit like waxing ecstatic over a postage stamp. As one weary woman, who had the misfortune to have all her friends come down with a bad case of puppy love for Papas, snapped to her unsuspecting server on her first visit: “I’m sick of hearing about this place.”
I’m a restaurant reviewer, not an advice columnist, but here’s my suggestion for Heard Enough in Asheville, and anyone else out there caught in a similar personal crisis: Stop fretting and start eating. Papas & Beer really is that good, from its crispy corn chips to its quivering, caramel-crusted flan.
The first Papas & Beer—presumably named for the massive Ensenada nightclub popular with spring breakers and women who compete in its popular “Battle for a Boob Job” contest (and the men who love them)—opened four years ago in Hendersonville. The brand new Asheville restaurant—brilliantly located just down the street from Bent Creek to facilitate post-mountain bike ride margarita drinking—is already attracting crowds on weekends with the same extensive menu of favorites drawn from the Cali-Mex canon.
Cali-Mex is surfer soul food, with avocados aplenty and shrimp vying with pork for preeminence (a losing fight, since there isn’t a flour tortilla or batch of refried beans worth eating that hasn’t had a run-in with lard). Much as college students can breeze through Cancun without ever realizing they’re in Mexico, diners at Cali-Mex strongholds like Papas may not know they’re not eating Tex-Mex: Many of the dishes are the same, but the burritos are muy gordo and there’s a near-pathological emphasis on freshness.
“We throw everything away at the end of the night,” our server told us on a recent visit, summoning a vision of a freshness-obsessed cook on a kitchen rampage, sweeping cooler shelves clean of red peppers and celery that had overstayed their one-day welcome. Most restaurants, when blessed with portly ripe tomatoes, would feature wide slices of them in a salad then dice them a few days later to play second fiddle in a seafood dish and, finally, puree them for an employee-meal spaghetti sauce before consigning them to the scrap heap. Surely Papas can’t trash all its ingredients, but the restaurant’s cultish devotion to freshness is apparent in almost every dish.
Papas’ produce tastes so unmistakably alive that indulging in its salads can make even a carnivore feel savage. The emerald green lettuce in the Caesar salad, bathed in a garlicky dressing and sprinkled with cotijas, doesn’t just crunch—it crackles.
Caesar salad, long marooned in Italian-American restaurants, is rightly a Cali-Mex dish, having been concocted by a San Diego restaurateur trying to skirt Prohibition by moving his operations to Tijuana. Papas’ admirable rendition of the classic salad can be added to any of its 50-plus entrees for $1.99—but so can a steaming bowl of tortilla soup.
The delectable tomato-based tortilla soup is smoky and rich with vegetables, including zucchini, potatoes, carrots and celery. (Part of the joy of ordering the soup is knowing how much perfectly good produce you’re saving from an otherwise certain fate.) The robust soup is a cousin to the mild salsa roja that fills one-third of the stainless steel sauce bar to which diners are directed after a server delivers their welcome basket of complementary corn chips. The golden chips arrive in the company of a saucerful of satin-smooth bean dip spiked with cumin, but the sauces on offer make it well worth leaving your seat.
In addition to the salsa, the sauce trough holds a creamy cilantro dip and a velvety pepitas-based sauce hopped up on habaneros that recalls the color of Thousand Island dressing and manages to simultaneously heat and soothe the tongue. I’m still not entirely sure why the sauces—and only the sauces—are set up self-serve style, but the thrill of pulling back the lid on them does reawaken the feeling of discovery that’s sadly absent from eating at a restaurant that’s quickly becoming everyone’s favorite Mexican place. Or so I hear. Frequently.
It would probably take years of visiting Papas to sample all the spicy flautas, overstuffed enchiladas, sizzling fajitas and burritos on the menu. No matter the name, most of the dishes are essentially riffs on the same theme: Warm tortillas wrapped around chunks of meat and vegetables with dollops of rice and refrieds on the side. To Papas’ credit, even its standard-issue Mexican rice is a stand out, with startlingly soft, plump grains.
Most of Papas’ dishes come with a choice of chicken, pork or beef. While all are cooked well, the décor seems to call for red meat: The restaurant’s walls and tables are adorned with rustic sepia-toned illustrations of banditos and vaqueros. The overall effect is terrific, and wouldn’t be displeasing to a super-wealthy Santa Fe retiree bent on redoing his dining room with a Southwestern theme.
The best entrees at Papas are the simplest; with food this fresh, there’s no need to fry. Potato chimichangas, a knish knock-off, were disappointing. Nachos were overloaded with sour cream. But a Guadalajara Molcajetes—named for its chili-fueled red sauce rather than the traditional molcajetes cooking method, which involves grilling meat on a hot rock—was a stupendous exposition of steak. Fish tacos, garnished with cilantro and a subtle Baja cream sauce, didn’t look like anything special, but the single strip of fish lying in the center of the corn tortilla was makes-you-weak-in-the-knees good.
Even the aggravated woman who swore she didn’t want to hear another word about Papas was won over by the end of her meal. “This was great,” she told her much-relieved server, who turned out to be the owner’s sister-in-law. “I think it was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.”