Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., June 15, 2012
Saturday Happy Hour: 4-6pm
Papi Tino's1306 E. Sixth, 479-1306
Tuesday-Saturday, 6pm-12mid; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-4pm; Saturday happy hour, 4-6pm
When I first heard about the East Side's much-hyped Papi Tino's, my expectations ran high. Described as an authentic Mexican cantina, it became the overnight darling of the glam set when it opened last year. Owner Alan Gonzalez, a former architect, infused new life into one of East Sixth Street's sagging Victorians, drawing inspiration from the house itself, as well as from the neighborhood's own barrio aesthetics.
Mismatched thrift store tables and chairs spill out from the front porch of this bungalow-turned-restaurant. Christmas lights are strung up between the trees in the yard, while rubber tire landscaping and tropicals in found-object pots add artistic charm to the outdoor dining area. Inside, the house has a stripped-down, candlelit ambience that makes you feel like you've stepped into another century. The effect is delightful and romantic.
For all its seemingly accidental charm, however, the food here is damned pricey. A plate of guacamole sets you back $9. Sure, it is fresh, with diced tomato and onion, but it's not so very different from the $6 plate you'd get anywhere else in town. Mango ceviche rings up at $13, and while the mangos and homemade chips elevate the dish, the marinated fish is unexceptional.
This, then, is Papi Tino's art. It takes a classic old frame and dresses it with some clever baubles to make it new, and even more remarkable, to make it desirable. A short roster of cantina-style dishes is offered for nightly dinner and weekend brunch. These are well-executed; the commitment to quality ingredients and thoughtful preparation comes through in dishes like the Enchiladas de Camaron ($17). The shrimp inside their tortillas are perky and altogether muscle up to the tomatillo-poblano sauce enrobing them like a velvet cloak. An order of shredded duck tacos, studded with crisp chicharrones and pickled onions (an off-the-menu special, $10 for two), offered a well-studied contrast in flavors and textures. A pleasant $9 scoop of peanut ice cream gets some value-added dressing with a "puff cruller" made from a fried flour tortilla.
Do not expect rice and beans with your meal; do not expect free chips and salsa. Papi Tino's is not really selling affordable meals; it's selling atmosphere. And in this respect, it succeeds admirably. The restaurant features live music practically every night of the week and a first-rate bar pouring an impressive range of tequilas and mescals. When the sonidos are playing, and the mescal is flowing, it's hard to imagine a more pleasant way to unload some extra coin.