Papi's Tacos

Papi's Tacos (Jefferson Jackson Steele / June 20, 2014)

We Americans love a safe experience without risk. Think about Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va, the amusement park which used to call itself "Old Country." It's a caricature of Europe, with busty beer fraus serving watered-down brews—the park is owned by Anheuser-Busch, so that's no surprise—at the year-round "Oktoberfest" garden, minstrel-like "Italians" juggling, and polite, non-smoking "Frenchmen" sporting berets for the flip-flopped masses venturing out of suburbia, another façade of perfection. For another example, think about the South of the Border theme park in South Carolina, with its snoozing, racist "mascot" Pedro. His iconic sombrero decorates thousands of bumper stickers and T-shirts exporting a cartoonish—and particularly American—version of Mexico.

These places didn't come to mind when we first walked into the new Fells Point Mexican bar/restaurant Papi's Tacos (1703 Aliceanna St. [410] 299-8480) and saw the standard pressed tin ceiling, dark woods, and narrow bar—but by the time we left, we felt differently. It seems that Papi's is trying to bring a safe, suburban "flavor" of Mexico to the streams of Fells Point tourists.

Even the name, "Papi," in this context, sounds like a phony, benevolent "Mexican" mascot. A giant chalkboard asks, "Papi, what does it mean?????" followed by definitions of not especially exotic words such as "mole," "yuca," and "adobo." It didn't help that the piped-in music included "The Macarena."

Opened about three months ago, Papi's is co-owned by Charlie Gjerde, brother of restaurateur Spike Gjerde, with whom he partnered to open Mt. Vernon's dearly departed Spike and Charlie's—so, our bar was set pretty high for this little pub on Aliceanna.

The first time we stopped in, the kitchen was still experiencing growing pains. Our hard-shell lobster tacos ($7.50) fell apart in our hands due to an abundance of butter marinade. Worse, we sent back the sweet Tres Leche cake ($6) when we found mold.

A few weeks later, though, things had improved greatly. We re-ordered the lobster tacos and they looked great when they arrived at the table and they held together—but they still had that buttery flavor and were a bit over-cooked. The chorizo soft tacos ($5) came covered in a colorful confetti of pico de gallo and a perfect zig-zag of cream on top but were too salty. The vegetarian enchiladas ($6) arrived slathered in a deep mahogany colored homemade mole which looked great, but the dish suffered from too much cinnamon and was so sweet it could have been a dessert.

Few of the dishes contained any substantial heat or the kind of complexity that comes with authentic Mexican cuisine. The two exceptions were starters which we could have eaten all day: The Elote Esquites corn on the cob braised with the herb epazote, fire salt, and covered in the house's Mexican ranch sauce and a delicate sprinkle of Cotija cheese ($4.50) was superb, as were the platanos with agave nectar and pineapple salsa ($5).

We also liked the "mission style" burrito ($7), which came stuffed with braised shredded short ribs, salsa verde, and that American favorite, pepper Jack cheese—but it was no better than a burrito from Chipotle.

Everything looked great, but it was the generic blandness that struck us as odd. The house makes all its own salsas, which, according to the colorful and user friendly chalkboard, should contain ingredients that set your mouth on fire. Surely Gjerde knows how to make a "hottest" salsa that produces more than a faint tingling on the tongue. But this one wasn't, and presumably that was a conscious decision. The target audience seems to be masses reared on suburban stripmall eateries like Chili's and Don Pablo's. Maybe Gjerde is gearing up for a franchise of his own.

The make-up of the salsas sounds great, but when they get to the table, fail to deliver on almost every level. The stand-out is the salsa verde made with poblano and jalapeno peppers: This one had the right balance of smoky and hot, but not too hot. We were most disappointed by the casa salsa, which is served with the obligatory chips at the beginning of the meal and was little more than tomato sauce in a ramekin.

The server, who was outstandingly attentive and recommended both the starters that we fell for, was also the bartender. He apologized profusely for the overly sweet pineapple cilantro mojito ($7.50)—it was pretty much sugar water with green bits swimming in it—but made up for it with a cold bottle of Victoria beer from Mexico. This clean, dry pilsner is hard to get locally and was a great choice to pair with our dishes.

Sadly, the same can't be said for the Tres Leche cake, which we're kind of obsessed with. Papi's cake, according to our server, is not made in-house and it was thick with some kind of sugary pasty icing and super dense—though minus the mold this time, which was a relief. If done correctly, this milky cake makes a fantastic finish to a spicy Mexican meal. Golden West in Hampden and the near-by restaurant El Salvador, for instance, do this complex dish right.

If you're wasted in Fells Point and need a quick meal, or you're dragging a gaggle of kids from the pirate ship and are looking for some food that won't upset their tastebuds, Papi's is a safe bet. Otherwise, walk a block or so up Broadway and experience the real heat of Latino cuisine without the cute name. ¿

Papi's Tacos is open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m.