Papas & Beer

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.”

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24 thoughts on “Papas & Beer

  1. John

    While I enjoy your reviews, it would really be helpful to have some basic information such as the address of the restaurant (“just down the street from Bent Creek” doesn’t help very much), hours and days of operation, menu prices, etc.

  2. Gary Woodall

    Aweseome food and wonderful attentive service..The freshness of everything I have tried in my 3 visits ( so far) is second to none. I think I’ll go back tonight. This place is a real winner..

  3. hobart

    1000 Brevard Road… although, there seems to be no real source online to get info about them… and google maps suggest that this is in the middle of intersection.. may need a tomtom.

  4. GARY WOODALL

    it is in the shopping center thay Kmart is in on Brevard Rd/Sardis Rd..I have made another journey there and again I was very pleased..Count me in a regular there..enjoy

  5. cynthia myers

    We also vote for the address. We searched last weekend but were unsuccessful…

  6. Robert B

    Haven’t been there yet but if it’s half as good as the one down in H’ville…….well, yummmmm. Mexico City Tacos!!!!!

  7. pete

    Yesterday was my fifth visit to this place and it rocked as always. I have eaten at Mexican retaurants all over the Eastern U.S. and this one tops them all. Consistantly tasty food and great staff make it my all time favorite for Mexican cuisine. Don’t ask for a large beer unless you mean it, like a 32oz. mug people. If you can’t find it you need to put the blunt down and open up your eye sockets, it’s by the Big K-mart in the corner of the plaza. Enjoy!

  8. carlos estrada

    hola soy de los angeles y regrese a tirar desmadre y encontre el papas diferente que paso con las areas v.i.p. donde esta esa gente que me recivia con el calor de mi raza ahora hace poco vine con unos amigos y los cantineros jugando y payaseando me llamaron paisa pero lo que ellos no saben es que yo soy cliente y me gustaba el trato del v.i.p. investigue el nombre de los que se burlaban llamandonos paisa despectivamente y fueron un tal calas , jorge , y un mesero jaribay o garibay ellos no saben que la propina se gana no se pide como limosna. a ver si regreso. gracias

  9. Heather

    As a native Californian with ancestors who emigrated from Mexico, I have been hard pressed to find a Mexican restaurant worthy of repeated visits until Papa’s & Beer. My first visit was about 2 months ago and I don’t know why I’d never been before. It was a truly spiritual experience as I was transported back to the days of sitting in my great grandmother’s kitchen eating her homemade beans and tortillas! The fish tacos were different than the ones we’d get in San Diego, however they are the best by far in this area. I do believe if I’d stood up too soon, my knees would have buckled! Even my kids who are so diluted by anglo-saxon blood loved Papa’s and actually ask to go back!

  10. Errington Thompson

    Cali-Mex? What’s that? As someone who has grown up in Texas. I can tell you that this food is directly from San Antonio and Dallas. The flavor just jumps off the plate. This is Tex-Mex at its best!!

  11. R Thompson

    the very BEST pulled beef taco salads ever. would not want one from anywhere!

  12. NC Native

    I went to the location in Hendersonville when it first opened, that night I got to meet the owner Larry. Can you believe he was about to close this restaurant at first because of lack of business? Then we helped get the word out and now look:) Third location maybe?

  13. Barb F.

    That THIRD location has been opened now for a few months – on Tunnel Road, just before the tunnel (if you’re travelling toward the city). As if the second location near Biltmore Sq Mall wasn’t delicious enough for you, this one has a better embiance, very nice staff and BIGGER plates – the chimichanga I ordered for lunch satisfied my dinner appetite too(at 9pm, by the time I was hungry)!

  14. Ex-SoCal

    Being from Southern Cal and being able to drive down to the originals in Rosarito Beach, Ensenada and La Paz,Baja California…This takes me back to my teenage road trips to Baja…

    You just can not beat the food. I am very they have come to Asheville!!

  15. Casey

    We recently attended a soccer Tourny in Asheville and read about P&B on line -it was EVEN BETTER than all the rave reviews. The only down side is that we are now spoiled and no long have a desire to visit our local Cal-Mex establishment!

  16. Eric Hall

    Let me put it this way… “there ain’t no way in hell you could go wrong eating at Papas and Beer!!!”

  17. Dan Canipe

    Simply awesome! Very fresh food. Even though we got there very close to closing time last night, the people were very nice and the food is truly fantastic!!

  18. John Jimenez

    Love papas & beer!!!!!!!!!!111
    its the best place to eat and drink too!!!!!!!

  19. Sharon

    We went to the one on Tunnel Rd.after a wrestling match.OMG!!!What a menu!!The line was long but didn’t have to wait long.The food was awesome.We got too much for the little price.I brought the rest of mine home for lunch the next day.It was just as good as the night before.Strongly recommend this and will go back.

  20. Dale

    Ate at Tunnel Rd location. Way too much food for the price (not a complaint). Had the Ranchero burrito and it was all I could do to eat it all but it was so good I couldn’t stop eating. Good bean dip with chips. Good salsa bar. Great service. Best mexican food I have had in ages. LOVE THIS PLACE!

  21. Lorenzo

    So, is this place related to the Papas & Beer in Ensenada, Mexico? I used to party there in the ’80s and ’90s when I lived in California. But the only food I recall them serving was papas–that is, french fries. Fries and beer and partying all night–heaven. But I shudder to think of going to a cute, suburbanite, Disneyfied Tex-Mex restaurant in Asheville of all places under this same name. This is slander to the good name of Papas & Beer, even if the owners duly licensed it out and gave it their blessing.

  22. L

    I need an address. I understand that there is one in Hendersonville, NC and/or Asheville. would like to visit but coming from Greenville, S. C. I have no idea where big K-Mart is!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. S

    Hey “L”, P&B just opened in greenville on Haywood rd!! it is near the harbour seafood rest. down from the mall. We live in the upstate also and are very excited!!

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