Fells Point's new Mexican spot, Papi's Taco Joint, feels like the right restaurant in the right place at the right time. Judging by the crowds, the neighborhood agrees.
Papi's opened in March in the Aliceanna spot formerly occupied by Bradley's of Fells Point (otherwise known as "the bar that was on Bar Rescue"). Papi's owners Carrie Podles and Charlie Gjerde, the pair behind the restaurant's successful neighbor Alexander's Tavern, overhauled the kitchen, bathrooms and decor, creating a fun space that feels Mexican-themed but not obnoxiously so.
Scene & Decor When we arrived, just after 6 on a Thursday evening, Papi's was packed with a lively happy-hour crowd, with diners crowding sidewalk tables and occupying every barstool.
When we walked in, we experienced a few moments of confusion. There are two front doors and we didn't know which to enter; we're still not sure whether we got it right. After just a minute of looking lost, a friendly (and obviously busy) man, told us to hang on for five minutes. After a short wait, he found us a table in the tiny, adorable courtyard behind the restaurant — and ended up waiting on us himself.
Drinks We started with a round of drinks, including an easy-to-drink Negra Modelo ($3), one of several Mexican beer options on tap, an herbaceous pineapple cilantro mojito ($7.50) and a house margarita ($6) that was well-balanced between sweet and tart.
Service While we enjoyed the drinks, unfortunately, one of them was not what we ordered (we asked for jalapeno cilantro limeade, not the cilantro mojito). It seemed like an honest mistake, and given the background chatter and music, the waiter likely misheard us.
Plus, when we placed our drink orders, Papi's was incredibly busy. As the happy-hour crowd dwindled, our waiter was in less of a rush and able to spend more time at our table. And to the kitchen and bar's credit, both drinks and food arrived speedily, even at the busiest point.
Appetizers In addition to Papi's very good, not too spicy, house salsa, which arrived free with chips, we ordered a trio of additional salsas ($5) and a dish of roasted chile queso ($4.50) to share.
The salsas — two red, one green — were billed as hot but none overwhelmed us with their spice. All three were well-seasoned, vibrant and fresh.
The queso, made with Monterey Jack cheese mixed with poblano, jalapeno and mulato chiles, had just enough smoky heat to make it interesting. We loved it.
Entrees Papi's traditional take on the torta ($9.50), a Mexican sandwich made with meat, avocado, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and jalapeno, was a good one. We opted for chorizo (other options included short ribs, chicken, pork or ground beef).
The combination of spicy sausage, bright vegetables and creamy avocado, all on chewy Mexican bolillo bread, was excellent.
At each table, a small clipboard holds papers used to order Papi's street tacos. Available "authentic style" (cilantro, onion, radish, green onion, nopales — aka prickly pear cactus — and lime) or "gringo style" (lettuce, pico de gallo, shredded Monterey Jack and crema), the tacos come in dozens of permutations, from short ribs to lobster to fried chayote and yuca.
We tried two iterations: carnitas ($5 for two) and Baja mahi ($6.50 for two), both authentic style and on flour tortillas.
The carnitas were tender, moist and full of flavor — we'd eat them again and again — but it was the fish tacos that really grabbed us. Marinated in tequila, seared and served with jicama slaw (and, on ours, a scoop of pineapple salsa), the fish was cooked exactly right, and together, the flavors and textures were bright and summery.
Dessert After all the chips we ate, we probably didn't need a slice of uber-moist tres leches cake ($6) — but we're glad we ordered it anyway. Sweet and milky, it was a classic and satisfying take on the traditional dessert.
By the time we made our way back through the restaurant to the street, the crowd at Papi's had thinned out just a bit. But it was still busy, with people ordering dinner and extra rounds of drinks.
As the weather gets warmer, we expect that the crowds won't shrink. We hope the wait staff is bracing itself.
Papi's Taco Joint
Back story: Papi's opened in March in the space that previously belonged to Bradley's of Fells Point. Owners Carrie Podles and Charlie Gjerde (also the co-owners of nearby Alexander's Tavern) styled Papi's as a fun, casual Mexican spot where both the food and drinks are top-notch.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Street tacos are the way to go at Papi's Taco Joint — and the tequila-marinated mahi mahi tacos are the best of the bunch. Try them "authentic style," with sweet pineapple salsa, crunchy jicama slaw, radishes, cilantro, onions and mild nopales (prickly pear cactus).
Where: 1703 Aliceanna St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-299-8480; papistacosfells.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Monday-Friday (may close earlier Monday-Thursday); 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Bottom line: An upbeat vibe and great, casual Mexican food make Papi's Taco Joint a popular option for happy hour, and satisfying any time