The original Papi’s Tacos al Carbón is one of those Riverside staples that you can’t help but marvel at—if nothing else, that the proprietors had the foresight to dream it up in that location. At the Van Buren site, there wasn’t much around when the saloon-like building went up 26 years ago, and, next to the sprawl of commerce that has filled in around it, Papi’s sits as ancient as the Parthenon in Greece in the midst. Fitting, since the sloppy authentic Mexican food joint is owned by Greeks.
Walking into this sunny little landmark you are apt to ignore just about all of the ambiance when heading to the counter to place your order, but Papi’s isn’t without some flash. There’s a painting of Mexico on the back of the salsa stand that’s like something out of Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s mind, lots of festive beer-bottle piñatas (Negro Modelo, good), lots of nubby cacti in the planters outside, sombreros, mosaic-tile tabletops and multi-colored ceiling fans. The salsa area features a variety of temptations, none the least is the fresh radish wedges, which are excellent and cool with a little salt to preview the palate. Salsas themselves range from salsa ceballa (mild) to salsa fuego (which we’re told means “excruciatingly non-mild”). Everything is replenished frequently and lovingly.
“What’s good here,” my friend and I asked the counterstress. “Everything,” she said. I do appreciate such specificity on direct questions, and went with the three-taco plate, having the carne asada and chicken mix. My friend was about to order a burrito, but spotting the size and girth of a couple in the oven (they are slightly smaller than Sunday newspapers) decided a two-taco plate was sufficient. Though there are several tables outside, including a couple under a vine-covered canopy (very penumbral indeed) and tables with leather and wooden chairs, we staked a booth and waited a couple of minutes for the food.
And indeed, it arrived a couple of minute’s later, plates as heavy as cake pans with corn-tortilla tacos spilling their peppery meats, refried beans with light corn chips stabbing out like shark dorsals, Spanish rice and salad. Though it’s easy to take on the look of a savage when presented with such culinary mayhem, the refined side of me that’s not associated nor directed by my appetite noted how fresh everything was. The salad was crisp and green; the beans soft and steaming; the rice tumbling and flavorful; and the meats lean and savory. In other words, a lot of thought goes into the food at Papi’s. The greatest thing is the co-mingling beans and rice and salad and meats at the bottom of the plate, all the spillings that never escape a hungry man’s attention. If you are pushing your fork through this detritus at the end, it means you ate everything else on your plate. It means that a home cooked meal is sitting heavy in your stomach, like a pound of bullets in milk. It means that you are sort of asking yourself, “now why have I gone and done that?” Sign of good food.
Needless to say we didn’t stick around for the homemade flan.
Papi’s Tacos al Carbón, 5701 Van Buren Blvd., Riverside, (951) 359-7545. Lunch for two, $18-$20. MC. V