By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Yes, there are potatoes at Papas & Tacos Mexican Food, but not to the degree you might expect considering the Spanish word for the starchy vegetable (papas) sits at the lead of the eatery’s full name. Though if you can settle for plump and crunchy potato tacos, or soothing chicken soup fortified with tender, cubed russets, you’ve come to the right address.
Established in 1989, and now under new ownership, Papas recently expanded its menu and streamlined its hours of operation. In years prior, the shop erratically closed for hours or days at a time to the dismay of customers hunting for a fast bite along this quiet, taco-less stretch of First Avenue.
As of earlier this year, it began slinging additional items such as taco salads, carne asada nachos, chimichangas and the above-mentioned chicken soup stocked with zucchini, carrots, potatoes and what appeared to be the equivalent of two chopped chicken breasts floating within. (Hubby and I made a pact upon first sip, that either he or I will drive to Papas to fetch this house-made liquid gold for whoever between us first gets struck with a cold this winter season.)
Also, the interior has been refreshed with a bright coat of white paint matching plainly to white, Formica-top tables and clean, beige tile flooring. Without the Halloween decorations currently in place, the atmosphere is aesthetically colorless.
Situated in a strip plaza next door to a dive bar named Cherrybomb — a main source of business for Papas — I found easy parking in the plaza’s small lot over two separate visits. Missing inside the shop, however, is a salsa bar, an all-important amenity that otherwise leaves you at the mercy of applying “gravy” to your food through well-used squeeze bottles.
I found both the red and green salsas negligible. The former lacked zingy red chilies, while the green tasted like nothing in particular, except a tad spicier. If I had judged Papas only on its salsas and mushy chicken rolled tacos I tried initially, I would have never returned.
But several hits ensued during the course of my visits. In addition to the soup, the “TJ style taquitos” were classic street tacos: steamy corn tortillas topped with nicely seasoned carnitas, diced white onions and fresh cilantro. The accompanying lime wedge was obligatory for gaining the full south-of-the-border flavor experience.
A poblano burrito had everything going for it — grilled chicken (or carne asada), braised onions, sour cream, and generous strips of the dark-green poblanos, which I’ll take any day over Anaheim chilies because of their deeper, spicier essence.
Mole enchiladas are a rare find in San Diego’s casual taco shops. Before ordering them, the woman working the counter gave us a teaspoon of the sauce, which she said contains “lots of ingredients, including dark chocolate.”
The sample was cold and tasted bitter. Although when heated and applied to the chicken-stuffed enchiladas, it permutated into a sweet, complex mole similar (and cheaper) to the deluxe versions you’ll find at El Agave in Old Town.
We loved the potato tacos, but longed for zestier salsas as we crunched through their crispy, fried shells and hit upon generous measures of the mashed spuds combined with iceberg lettuce, diced tomatoes and shredded cheese. Served alongside were decent refried pinto beans and mediocre Mexican rice.
Perhaps the fieriest item on the menu is the spicy fish taco bedded on corn tortillas. We ordered one a la carte. It featured a small fillet of tilapia saturated in a blistering dark-red sauce that required swigs of cold water after every bite. Indeed, the flavor of the fish had no chance of surfacing, but I liked it anyhow.
Papas’ also offers a plethora of vegetarian burritos filled a choice of ingredients such as spinach, zucchini, bell peppers, mushrooms and nopales (cactus), all with or without beans, cheese or rice. There are also several types of breakfast burritos, one of them containing potatoes.
The staff caters well to custom orders, although whether you’re eating inside or taking food to go, be prepared to wait about 10 minutes longer for your food than you would at other Mexican joints, even in the absence of a line. Your reward will be reasonably inexpensive grub that is perhaps more carefully crafted and original than what you’ll find at other taco shops.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.