Review: Papi Tino's

 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.23.12
 
2014 UPDATE: Papi Tino's has closed
 
Maybe my failure to fully embrace the Papi Tino’s experience is indecision. Is it progressive Tex-Mex, interior Mexican or simple Mexican resort food? It’s some of all those elements, packed into a restored white bungalow with a fine wood floor, burlap walls and a bar that looks like a workbench, fronted by unfinished plywood and topped with haphazard collections of tools. Candles flicker on every table, on every outside step, along the bar like a séance or a bohemian seduction.
 
The front courtyard is seductive beyond a doubt, with the romantic glow of white lights hanging from strings and white tablecloths amid the sloppy ramble of self-consciously dive-driven East Sixth Street. The first night I passed Papi Tino’s when it opened in July, I thought it was a mirage, so hot was the street and so cool was this alcove with all the outdoor tables where a flamenco guitarist played.
 
I knew Papi Tino’s was reaching beyond Tex-Mex with a bowl of langoustine bisque and a dish of grilled shrimp over mango. The bisque ($5) leaned heavily on cream with hide-and-seek shellfish notes that weren’t always pleasant. At $15, the shrimp dish seemed more like an overpriced appetizer with just three shrimp in a tangle over a puck of mango and avocado topped with a peppery chopped peanut sauce that created a hot-cool contrast. A poblano soup ($5) was hot, spicy, creamy, interesting. Pureed to uniform smoothness, its flavor came from the heat spikes and vegetal notes of the poblano, asparagus and spinach that give it a forest-floor green even in that cream base. Texture came from stripes of fried, crumbled prosciutto and crushed pistachio, which at first seemed like gratuitous flourishes but added just enough bite to lend craggy character.
 
On three separate visits, mahi mahi was the base of a ceviche of the day ($13 with chips), leading me to think the daily part had little to do with it. Shredded to the texture of tuna salad, the fish let the vinegar and produce do all the work.  If I’m eating ocean-view resort food, I’d like to taste more seafood in my ceviche rather than mostly mango and onions. Salpicon de Venado was a ceviche for those times when mahi mahi or generic whitefish just won’t do. Shreds of cooked venison took to their vinegared environs better than beef would, softened by the acid, awakened by the tangy top notes and surrounded by a crunchy chorus of white onion, fresh jalapeño, tomato and cilantro. The tiny dish, embroidered with red bell pepper, an avocado slice, red pickled onions and a plate of house-fried tortilla chips, was a tough value to swallow at $15 when I had it. It’s $11 on the latest version of the menu.
 
On another visit, sticker shock came with the shot of mezcal I added to a cantaloupe agua fresca, an option listed at $7. The waiter helped me choose a mezcal, Illegal Joven, but he didn’t clue me in that it would send the price to $13. I’d pay that for a well-composed cocktail, maybe, but not a Latin variation of gin and juice. Regardless, I’d always rather know upfront about the $13 part. Papi Tino’s house margarita is a bracing shot of fresh citrus and agave, minus the carnival sweetness. Speaking of sweetness, I’m still trying to lose the memory of grease and sugar from a hilariously overpriced $9 fried pastry shell with a scoop of ice cream and a sliced strawberry drizzled with chocolate. A heavy, gummy fried churro stick ($7) was even worse.
 
The best parts of Papi Tino’s aren’t on plates at all. Outside during Austin’s two seasons — hot and warm — you listen to the sounds of the street and the tables around you, and if you’re lucky, a jazz trio or a pianist on the upright inside. Always sit outside. Sitting inside on a night when there’s no live music, I mostly got to hear the staff swap loud war stories.
 
As pretty as the outside tables are, the presentation of the dishes on them is still evolving. Both the bisque and a dish of mild green suizas enchiladas with dry shredded chicken sported a palsied squiggle of sour cream. At $13 with spackle-like refried beans, the only remarkable feature of those enchiladas was the price. For more exotic flavor and value, I’d turn to chicken enchiladas with reddish-brown mole sauce packing fall spices and dry chile notes. For a vegetarian detour, Papi Tino’s fills a pie-size portobello mushroom cap with sauteed vegetables and cheese for $9, a price they’ve dropped by $2 since I first tried it, a sign that the restaurant is still deciding how it fits into a market already crowded with Mexican places that made up their minds years ago.
 
 
Papi Tino’s
1306 E. Sixth St. 479-1306, www.papitinos.com.
Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Tuesday-Saturday. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking. Inset above: Poblano soup and Camarones de Diabla. Inset top: Guacamole with a house margarita and aqua fresca with mezcal; salpicon de venado; enchiladas suizas and langoustine bisque.)