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 V.17 No.7 | February 14 - 20, 2008 

Restaurant Review

Papa Nachos

Authentically good

Say   ¡si!   to shrimp   a la plancha    for $11.99.
Tina Larkin
Say ¡si! to shrimp a la plancha for $11.99.

Restaurant criticism has a fairly straightforward formula: Do your homework, visit the restaurant a few times and sample as much of the menu as possible. Keep an eye out for ambience and service and, voila!, you have our jobs in a walnut shell. But even with a rubric, the hard part comes from sitting in front of a blank computer screen, cursor blinking impatiently for input. Analyzing the latest in a string of mom-and-pop joints weighs heavily, because it's not only reputations that are at stake—it's livelihoods. People in the business of serving families have their own mouths to feed. And usually it's those families that are back there cooking, waiting tables and washing dishes.

So my best recourse is to judge a restaurant by the standards it holds itself to. Up until now, my seemingly foolproof formula has worked as intended. And then came Papa Nachos.

Two gorditas—housemade tortillas layered with beans, chicken or lean shredded beef, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese and avocado slices—will run you $9.99.
Tina Larkin
Two gorditas—housemade tortillas layered with beans, chicken or lean shredded beef, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese and avocado slices—will run you $9.99.

I could feel the unease settling into the pit of my stomach upon reading the words “Authentic Mexican Food” on its menu. “Authentic” is so subjective. Does it mean authentic to a certain region, a state or to the country as a whole? Is it possible to sum up an entire nation's food preferences with one menu? And what's your time frame? With Mexico’s trend of revisiting native and ancient cuisines (which involves a lot of bugs and the occasional lizard), you have to wonder if this is the "authentic" food of indigenous people or what was influenced by the Spaniards. Not to mention social class. The rich and the poor dine differently whether in Mexico or New Mexico.

“Authentic” is a loaded word, to say the least, so I asked owner Bridgette Lopez to clarify it. She told me her menu is “influenced by California, Arizona and New Mexico, along with Mexico; all the places we’ve lived.”

“Authentic” is a loaded word, to say the least, so I asked owner Bridgette Lopez to clarify it. She told me her menu is “influenced by California, Arizona and New Mexico, along with Mexico; all the places we’ve lived.”

I'll translate that. The food is authentically good—there’s just nothing strictly Mexican about it.

Several items, such as the “Papa Nachos” ($7.99 for a half order), show Lopez' Californian side with toppings of melted mozzarella cheese. It’s not bad; in fact, it’s a welcome change from Monterey jack. Add in homemade chips, green chile-spiced ground beef, cheddar cheese and other familiar toppings and you’ve got yourself a pretty tasty appetizer.

Papa Nachos' people are thrilled to serve you.
Tina Larkin
Papa Nachos' people are thrilled to serve you.

Piled atop ethereal corn tortillas, carne asada tacos ($8.99) just miss the mark. Tender, well-trimmed beef is soaked in a marinade that Lopez describes as “citrus, special seasonings and beer—definitely beer.” Perhaps a little too much beer. The citrus and seasonings were totally unidentifiable against the pronounced cerveza taste. Sides of buttery guacamole and zesty pico de gallo help with their own flavors.

An enormous green chile chicken burrito doused in chile sauce and buried under cheese ($7.49) reminded me of how good New Mexican food really is. Juicy, shredded chicken cuddles up to piquant chile and is tucked into a warm flour tortilla. The smothering chile sauce is more of an actual sauce than the typical New Mexico stewed-chile-and-meat concoction. It has an almost gravy-like mouthfeel to it, more flavorful than spicy, but still peppy.

Papa Nachos has all the expected New Mexican dishes like green chile rellenos ($8.49), with a light batter that doesn’t soak up grease. There are some unexpected items—namely several vegetarian offerings. Because the red and green chile sauces are made without meat, dishes such as cheese enchiladas ($7.59) and smothered bean burritos ($5.99) rescue herbivores who normally resort to munching on garnish. A veggie quesadilla ($5.99) with bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, and nachitos ($5.99) are a couple other choices that never had a face.

You'll get a filling meal at a reasonable price at Papa Nachos. More importantly, true to its mom-and-pop roots, you'll be spoiled by excellent service and attention to detail. Extra napkins are handed out before you realize you need them, special orders don’t upset anyone and every single staff member seems genuinely thrilled to be there. The dining room is small and simple, always full but quieter than you’d expect. People are too engrossed in chewing to talk. It’s like eating at your abuela’s house—family recipes and endearing idiosyncrasies that call for a little forgiveness from legalistic critics like me.

View Papa Nachos in Alibi Chowtown calendar

The Alibi recommends:

• “Papa Nachos”

• Chile rellenos

• Green chile chicken burrito

Papa Nachos, 7648 Louisiana NE, 821-4900. Hours: Mon 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Tue-Fri 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Sun. Price range: inexpensive. Credit cards, booze.

 
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