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California: The Best Mexican Food is Often Unpretentious

Paso Robles, California, isn’t the town I remember from the 1990s, but some good things haven’t changed! The city center near the community park was once a bit down-at-the-heels and old fashioned, but a new revitalization has taken place over recent years. But one thing that remains the same is good food.

We were wandering Paso Robles newly-refurbished downtown, feeling the need for something hearty and tasty at the end of a long day.  My husband Andrew recalled that there was a good Mexican restaurant that he had eaten at a few times when he was attending Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, when he was in the north part of San Luis County. He wondered if it was still there.  It was, only a block from the city park, and the neon sign announced it was open. It seemed a little anomalous, amid the upscale newer shops.

A folk-art type sign for Papi’s “Homemade Mexican Food” featured a man holding a rooster. I initially thought it was carrying maracas,  but it turned out that this little cartoon bird was a bantam roo wearing boxing gloves. (Does this mean their chicken is a knockout?) It was an unpretentious taqueria, with two rooms of tables and a counter by the kitchen, where you placed your order. A show featuring what appeared to be a Mexican rodeo was on in one room, with football in the other. The place seemed popular, with an array of people from rancher types to soldiers in fatigues, probably from nearby Camp Roberts.

We checked the menu and ended up with our friend Kash ordering the Camarones al Diablo (shrimp in a flavorful hot sauce), Camarones in garlic sauce, and crab enchiladas. My husband was tempted by a huge enchilada resting on the pick-up counter, which was drenched in sauce, covered in melted cheese, and smelled heavenly, but decided to stick with his crab enchilada. One is reminded that Paso, though in the dry savanna that supports the vineyards of the upper Salinas Valley, is only a short hop over the mountains from the Pacific Ocean, and fresh seafood.

And the seafood was divine! The shrimp were huge and ultra-fresh, and tasted almost like small lobsters. The garlic butter sauce on mine was perfect to bring out their sweetness, and they were perfectly cooked, tender and succulent. I felt utterly decadent with this platter of  juicy crustaceans! The spicy shrimp were smothered in a coral-colored sauce with just the right degree of hotness.  The crab enchiladas were perfectly enhanced with a sweetish hot sauce that really brought out the flavor of the crab. We mopped the sauces with flavorful and elastic tortillas that were totally unlike anything you’d buy in the market, and were probably hand-made. Kash came back from the salsa and garnish bar with what looked like roasted jalapeno peppers that were sweet and smoky, not at all what we were expecting. We asked, and it turned out that the peppers were deep-fried, which brought out amazing new flavors. We were hooked!

As we sat sipping our tamarind and horchata agua fresca, I was reminded once again that sometimes the best things aren’t overly pretentious. Some of the best Mexican food I’ve had has come from hole-in-the-wall places. Papi’s has been there for years, and people obviously come back again and again, even as my husband did, remembering some memorable meals. It was only after we had eaten that I noticed there was a framed collection of clippings up on the wall. It turned out that Papi’s had been featured in Sunset Magazine’s spread for March 2000, in an article on “The Ultimate Taco: Winning California Taquerias.” If the food we had was any indicator, things haven’t changed much in 10 years!

As we were leaving, Kash pointed to the sign and said he knew why my poultry-affectionato husband liked the place: it has a rooster on its sign!

Papi’s Mexican Restaurant
840 13th St
Paso Robles, CA 93446-7205
(805) 239-3720

Editor's Note: Have a question or comment? Leave a message in the comments below.

Jane BeckmanJane Beckman is a reformed workaholic who has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Her passions are food, wine, cooking, travel, and history, in no particular order. In fact, they tend to feed into each other. She might be found cooking over a fire at a historic adobe one weekend, eating crabcakes at a 19th century hotel in downtown Gettysburg on another, or getting lost on a back road, only to find an amazing park or hidden gem of a winery. Her family's love of exploring back roads has always influenced her, as did her father's love of exotic foods. Living in Hawaii at the age of 5, she acquired a taste for poke, pickled octopus, and poi. Japan hooked her on mochi and udon noodles, as well as Japanese kimono. When she was growing up on the Central Coast of California, her parents taught her how to be a "resident tourist" and find things even the locals didn't know about. She continues in that tradition, keeping an eye out for the unique and unexpected.

  • http://www.wineandfoodtravel.com Sonya

    Hi Jane, just wanted to let you know that your article inspired me to have hole-in-the-wall Mexican food today :)

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