We live in an ideal climate for pozole. That pork-and-hominy soup, heartening in spite of its relatively thin consistency, is best loaded up with plenty of ground chilies so that it turns cabbage and radish into vital ingredients and makes you sweat just a little. Aesthetically, its counterpart would be the smoky-limey Tajín rim around a blood-orange margarita. That’s the backbone of a good meal.
And you’ll find both at Papi’s, the new Mexican restaurant in the Tendernob that replaced Huxley. Opened by the same people who run Hayes Valley’s thriving Papito Hayes — as well as Matador, the taqueria elsewhere in Lower Nob Hill, and Tender, a wine bar right next door — it’s a project targeted to fill a small space in a neighborhood teeming with affordable, family-run places that cater to various immigrant populations. Huxley’s departing owner predicted the space would become fast-casual, and I assumed it would become something extremely fancy; we were both off the mark.
But it makes a good deal of sense, as apart from strict taquerias and a Yucatecan-style place, the Tenderloin is fairly short on sit-down Mexican food. As it has table service, Papi’s is not technically fast-casual, but there’s clearly an emphasis on heavy takeout trade to keep this small operation going. (A to-go bag one evening bore the Caviar logo.) You also get the sense Papi’s is accustomed to filling orders for people dining in, as food has a tendency to drop all at once without any semblance of coursing. If there are to water and two drinks already on your table, you might actually find yourself temporarily in need of a second table.
Still, there’s a vigor here, and it pops up in food and drink alike. The jalapeño margarita ($10) has something of a sock-in-the-kisser quality — possibly to conceal that the base spirit is agave wine, because like Papito, there isn’t a full liquor license. The blood-orange version is also excellent, having taken a gamble to minimize the sweetness. A duck-confit quesadilla ($14) comes cut in thick, generous pieces of three, oozing a sweet richness, and the equivalent taco gets the same treatment, full of mint and tamarind. Shrimp, fish, carne asada, and al pastor tacos are all equally worth ordering — and a notch lower on the gut-buster scale than the duck. (If you’ve eaten at Papito, you’ll notice the menus are much the same.)
Not everything is perfect. The bland guacamole, seriously overpriced at $10, tasted mostly like the refrigerator it had clearly sat in for hours if not overnight. And mole enchiladas ($17) couldn’t muster much in the way of depth or complexity. While it’s a tad unfair to say a small restaurant with nine different tacos offers insufficient variety, I would prefer at least one or two offal choices.
But a half-rotisserie chicken with two sides and a portion of escabeche is a bargain at $17, something you could easily convince yourself to eat half of and save the rest for lunch. An option for one of those sides is brussels sprouts with queso fresco, and just when I think I’ve met my lifetime quota of little brassica buds, I find a preparation so free of oil that my fatigue evaporates. And then there’s that red pozole, simmering for hours. I don’t know that that’s something many people would order for takeout, but there’s always the heavenly-sounding option of getting the duck-confit in burrito form.
Papi’s, 846 Geary St. 415-800-8777 or papissf.com