Papi Chulo’s Salsa Goes Under the Microscope Once Again

Posted by on Dec 15, 2014 in Dining, Jacksonville | No Comments
Guacamole Flight!

New England Guacamole — crabmeat’s been long overdue in this creamy concoction!

People who know me well know I take my salsa seriously. I put it on the usual Mexican-themed suspects — tortilla chips, burritos, et al. But I also shower it generously on omelettes, macaroni and cheese, even pasta when I want the spice to outpace the sugar in my red sauce. It’s a staple for my pantry and my palate.

So when I visited Papi Chulo’s Mexican Restaurant in Tinseltown early in November for my November 6 Florida Times-Union restaurant review, I was set to scrutinize the salsa (say that five times fast) … namely, the complimentary salsa and chips catapulted toward every table at every Mexican joint north of the border.

On first taste, Papi’s offering was pretty God-awful. Tomato-pasty, flat and uninspired are just a few adjectives that come to mind. And first impressions matter a lot when you’re at a restaurant for the first time.

Being an objective professional, I saw beyond the salsa misfire and generally enjoyed the rest of what followed. After revealing my true reviewer colors to our server and sharing my salsa story, he brought out reinforcements, a red sauce called chile de árbol that’ll probably melt paint off your house in five seconds flat. But heat doesn’t necessarily equate to better. Flavor, tang and moderate spice please the masses, and masses pay the bills. Their in-house salsalogists (or whatever one might call a salsa scientist) had some work to do.

Fast-forward several weeks to December 8 for a Jax Restaurant Reviews outing, back at Papi Chulo’s. This time, I got to meet Chris, the restaurant’s managing partner, who was very familiar with my review. Namely the few dim bulbs in an arguably glowing account.

This time, the standard-fare salsa was a delightful, medium-spiced, chunky number with a strong roasted tomato flavor profile. It wasn’t as tangy or determined to knock you over as a chipotle, but just a notch below.

While it was enjoyable on its own, Chris and his servers loaded our table down with plenty of competition for those chips, in the form of guacamole and ceviche flights ($9.50 and $11.50, respectively). I threw my support behind the New England Guacamole ($11.50 all on its own), an innovative conflagration of lump crabmeat, aromatics and roasted corn. On the ceviche side, it was hard to resist it Papi’s style ($13), teeming with mahi, scallops, shrimp, onions, chiles, cilantro and fresh lime juice.

Mexican Street Corn

If you do anything at Papi Chulo’s, find yourself some Mexican Street Corn.

One of the most aromatic, flavorful plates served on my return was the Mexican Street Corn ($4). I wish I’d run across this one on my first trip. It’s an ear of corn, dipped in this garlic-lime mayo concoction, with cotija cheese and chili powder. The question isn’t, “Should I get it?” but rather, “Should I pick up the ear to devour it, dripping with all of that goodness and risk a social faux pas, or dissect it with fork and knife?” Your company will dictate that decision.

Papi’s also is doing some great work in the gourmet taco department. I don’t know how many I tried in all that night, but it’d be darn-near impossible to top the Bang Shrimp ($4.50 taco; also available as a burrito or bowl). That sweet chili crema, driven deep into my palate from too many Bonefish Grill Wednesday happy hours, cannot be denied. Also of note was the Bob Marley ($4.50 taco), a motley arrangement of jerk chicken, mango salsa, black beans, Napa cabbage slaw and a miniature sweet plantain adorning the top of the pile. Kudos to the architect of that one.

Bob Marley Taco

The Bob Marley Taco, sweet plantain topping it off!

What’s a self-respecting Mexican joint without margaritas? Papi’s mixes nine styles, including a $48 (that’s no typo) Ay Papi elixir with Gran Patron Platinum, 100-year-old Grand Marnier and a 24-carat gold leaf garnish. Maybe I’ll come back in February for my 40th birthday to down that guy. It seems a fitting milestone birthday treat. This night, I settled for a frozen Mango Mojito (yes, they exist). Mine tasted like a smoothie; it was either “that good” or I really was downing a health drink. Probably not a bad thing for the start of the taco parade.

Oh … and Chris fixed the Tres Leches Cake ($6), which found its sweet spot in the moist department, a characteristic it lacked on my previous visit. Kudos to him and his staff for listening. Like my salsas, I take sweet tooth satiation equally seriously.

With that newly rehabilitated salsa, Papi Chulo’s should have a bright future, with more than a few flavorful plates and a lot of innovation coming out of its kitchen. Now all they need (because they’re in Tinseltown, after all) are a few more flat-screen TVs. That way they can compete for weekend sports fans with Ale House and its ilk on the dense side of Deer Lake Court.