Despite its European pedigree, this Potrero Hill newbie scores with excellent Mexican fare
DINE Step into Papito, a new cantina that opened this summer on Potrero Hill, and you probably won't notice many signs of a French connection. The paint scheme, of lime and rust shades, is cantina-ish. The plate of frosted, backlit glass that divides the tiny dining room from the entrance to the rest room, isn't — but it's more urban-rich than French. The menu is immaculately, if grandly, Mexican. What we are left with, then, is the bar, of lusciously burnished wood topped with a plateau of copper — rather bistro-like, I thought, though a zinc top would be more authentic.
The French angle is relevant because Papito is the sibling of nearby Chez Papa and Chez Maman, along with, until a recent change of hands, Pizza Nostra (which began life as Couleur Café) in the nearby flatlands. The impresario-in-chief of these concerns is Jocelyn Bulow, who put himself on the map in 1996 with the wonderful Plouf, a French-style seafood house, and has since made himself a force to be reckoned with on Potrero Hill and in the gallery district. Notable at the moment about the Bulow career arc is its curve away from the French kitchen, toward Italy (not that great a reach) and now toward Mexico, a somewhat bolder maneuver.
Papito wasn't completely unforeshadowed. Some of its roots are traceable to Couleur Café, which served a duck confit quesadilla that recurs here in more convincingly New World guise, with the former's Gruyère and caramelized onions subbed out in favor of habanero peppers, mint, cilantro, house-made pickles, chilpotle, and tamarind sauce. The other quesadillas (all $10) are equally impressive — and Mexican, not French or quasi-French — including an edition with homemade chorizo (I looked in vain for any leakage of that telltale bright orange grease, like Halloween face paint), potatoes, jack cheese, salsa verde, and pico de gallo. This is a serious, heavyweight, mealworthy quesadilla, not a finger snack for the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon.
Pico de gallo is possibly my least favorite of the Mexican condiments, since it so easily can be too oniony. But Papito gives the old warhorse new life by making it with pineapple instead of tomato and serving it with a pair of tacos ($8) filled with slow-cooked Berkshire pork carnitas and guajillo-tomatillo salsa roja and piped with plenty of crema.
The menu features a sizable range of shareable plates, including a lovely salad ($8) of heirloom tomatoes and nopal cactus, dusted with cotija cheese and swabbed with a sauce the menu card calls "cilantro pistou" (but seemed more like an avocado purée to us). Also of note was the variety of tomato shapes, sizes, and colors: orange, green, red, yellow, pear, cherry, large round. One feels slightly let down when "heirloom" — the word promises so much — tomatoes turn out to be just red, no matter how juicy they are.
Frijoles negros ($4) were underwhelming, despite the bolstering presence of chives, queso fresco, crème fraîche, and matchstick tortilla chips over the top. Fortunately, we had a trio of salsas (mango, tomatillo, and chilpotle) at hand to enliven things. Papito, incidentally, does not serve shovelsful of complimentary chips, and, much as I love chips and salsa, I think this is a good thing. It helps you retain an edge of hunger until the real food starts arriving. But it does mean the trifecta of salsas are orphans.
If the black beans were a kind of lull or pause, then the grilled cobs of white corn ($5 for two) were a revelation. The cobs were showered with grated cotija cheese and presented with lime quarters and chili salt, each potent but slightly superfluous, since grilled corn seldom needs much help and the cheese provided most of that here. A nice touch: the metal handle, cool and solid, protruding from each cob. These handles made the corn much easier and less messy to eat.