xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Papi's Taco Joint thrives in Fells Point

Some suggested the modest Fells Point space on Aliceanna Street was cursed, but what it really needed was a sound concept. The proof arrived on the 1700 block in March 2013 as Papi's Taco Joint, which has been consistently packed every time we've visited the bar.

But first, to dispel myth, a brief and recent history lesson: Lulu's Off Broadway served casual fare from 2003 to 2007, and was replaced by J.A. Murphy's, a dingy-but-comfortable dive bar that was infamously featured on the reality TV makeover show, "Bar Rescue." Hollywood could not save it, and J.A. Murphy's (then awfully retitled as Murphy's Law) ended a nearly four-year run in 2012. Nondescript successor Bradley's of Fells Point lasted about a year.

These places had their fans, but lacked a vision distinct enough to become a lasting entity in an increasingly crowded and competitive Baltimore bar scene.

Advertisement

Papi's owners Carrie Podles and Charlie Gjerde have watched the Fells Point scene evolve up close, as they both have owned Alexander's Tavern around the block since 2007. With years of experience and a front-row seat to the neighborhood's wants, Podles and Gjerde had the tools to develop a winner, but needed to follow through in the execution. With Papi's, they delivered on the promise.

Many Baltimore bars straddle the line between bar and restaurant, yet Papi's does so rather charmingly. The bar is small ("Every inch counts," Gjerde recently said about utilizing space), which has often promoted mingling and conversation on my many visits. Papi's does not accept reservations either, which feels appropriately casual. It works for date nights just as well as it works for after-work drinks, post-intramural activities and any other reason you would leave the house for a margarita.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Great bars often have great happy hours, and Papi's is no exception. On weekdays between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., house margaritas, draft beers and sangria are $3. Add in free chips and salsa and $1 tacos, and it's easy to see why Papi's draws a consistent crowd. The appeal could have diminished over time if the drinks were poor, but they are solid and packed with enough alcoholic punch to avoid such pitfalls.

Papi's has tinkered with its margarita recipe since Day 1, Gjerde said, but recently settled on a favorite. Arguably more than any other cocktail, the margarita seems hardest to perfect, in large part because the line between "too sweet" and "too sour" is so delicate and subjective. For this reviewer, the house margarita (regularly $7) — made with Familia Camarena Silver Tequila and house-made sour mix (lime juice, agave nectar and simple syrup) — tastes best not frozen and sans salted rim. It works because the tequila maintains top billing, but I must admit, the sugar wore my palate down by the third glass. Even salty tortilla chips could not help.

The house margarita is good for happy hour, but don't skip the other cocktails. My choice for an alternative is the Rita en Fuego ($7.50), which uses jalapeno-infused Familia Camarena Reposado Tequila and house sour mix. The hint of spice cuts through the mix just enough. The cocktail that surprised most was the Spiked Horchata ($7), which uses Mi Canton Horchata — yes, the canned kind — and Captain Morgan rum. The horchata's cinnamon flavor found a crisp balance with the alcohol's spices.

It is hard to find fault with the beer selection as well. There are nearly 20 bottled beers from Mexico alone (from Presidente to multiple Day of the Dead options), and the nine draft beers — still served at 29 degrees from the sophisticated tap system "Bar Rescue" installed years ago — include Breckenridge Agave Wheat, Jailbreak's jalapeno-flavored Welcome to Scoville IPA and other thoughtful choices.

Advertisement

I like Papi's and its drinks, but my friends and I go for the consistently fun experience. It's nice to hear Latin American artists like Victor Manuelle and Frankie Ruiz over the bar's speakers. The bathrooms are covered in Spanish comics like "Capitan America" and "La Masa El Increible Hulk." Bartenders are impressively attentive and in control, while tequila shots get ordered like tacos. There is little not to like.

Most encouragingly, Papi's works because Podles and Gjerde are fully committed to the concept, which also means improving it when necessary. Recently, Gjerde and chef Faith Paulick traveled to the Mexican town of Santiago de Tequila to better understand the spirit's production and role in the community. They came back with inspiration for a few new drinks (including the Batanga, a tequila-and-Coca Cola concoction) that will debut at Papi's soon.

Their hunger for more — more knowledge, more authenticity, more flavors — is another indication, of many, Papi's is poised for longevity. Now who said that was impossible?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement