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After makeover, Papi's Tacos is a welcome addition to Hampden's dining scene

In a makeover worthy of an HGTV special, Dimitri’s Tavern, the old Hampden dive, became Papi’s Tacos, a family-friendly Mexican joint that opened this spring.

In just a few months, the main dining room has already become a go-to spot for families, meet-up groups and friends reconnecting over happy hour. Located on Falls Road, it’s one of the few restaurants in the neighborhood to have its own parking lot.

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It’s a spinoff of the first Papi’s Tacos in Fells Point, owned by Carrie Podles and brother-in-law Charlie Gjerde. (Gjerde’s older brother Spike owns Woodberry Kitchen). Their team also runs Wicked Sisters across the street from the new Papi’s in Hampden.

First impressions: Mexican-inspired decor is cool but unfussy — it’s the kind of place where a toddler tossing a basket of tortilla chips on the floor doesn’t create a scene. “We want people to be able to bring their kids and relax and still have a good time,” Podles said.

But barflies will find lots to love too. A bar stocked with 72 bottles of tequila recaptures the boisterous spirit of the old Dimitri’s, with happy hour prices to match. A separate entrance from the sidewalk means that drinkers might never interact with those in the dining room.

An outdoor patio will eventually become a dining area — and not a moment too soon. The 100 or so seats fill up fast; guests can expect to wait for a table on busy nights.

Must-tries: Customers come (and come again) for items like reasonably-priced tacos and Mexican street corn, all made according to the recipes of the original Papi’s in Fells Point. The elote, grilled corn on the cob sprinkled in salty cotija cheese, is addictive: You may be eating the crumbs of cheese from the plate. We also liked the fresh ceviche, a generous mezcla of fresh shrimp, crab and calamari and tilapia, garnished with orange slices. Skip the queso fundido and instead go for the guacamole, mashed tableside, as an accompaniment to your free corn chips. I liked the tongue tacos; the lengua meat is cubed and salty, tasting kind of like corned beef.

Special touches: Service, like the overall restaurant itself, is friendly and accommodating without coming across as scripted. “Hey, no judgment,” our server said after we somewhat sheepishly placed a monumental order of multiple appetizers, entrees and desserts. Papi’s offers a gluten free menu, including its delicious steamed tamales. You can order tacos gringo-style, with extra cheese.

Pro-tip: If ordering tacos, fill out a paper checklist; a separate sheet for each individual order of tacos. For spice lovers, a $1 chile toreador is available in the form of a big, flash-fried jalapeno. It can either be eaten on its own, a la Homer Simpson eating the pepper of Quetzlzacatenango, or its seeds added to entrees for heat.

Bottom line: There are plenty of places to get great tacos in Baltimore: check out Clavel, Cocina Luchadoras or my personal favorite, Cinco de Mayo Tacqueria, an unassuming Highlandtown carryout where hardly any English is spoken. But, for Hampdenites looking for a place to gather and eat, the appeal of Papi’s Tacos goes way beyond the food. It’s a neighborhood institution in the making.

If you go: 3820 Falls Road, Hampden. 443-449-5796. Open for lunch and dinner daily. No reservations.

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