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Hooked on a feeling: Papi Tino's menu doesn't always live up to its sense of place

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
A special dish is the Codomiz al Piloncillo, which features a four ounce semi-boneless quail, marinated and grilled in a reduction of orange juice, chipotle, and piloncillo.

The old ramshackle white house sits amid a line of hip, new bars and aging businesses on East Sixth Street. You likely would not notice the weathered structure but for the circular white-clothed tables surrounding the building's perimeter. They're bunched just on the other side of the cedar fence that separates tranquil Papi Tino's from the pulsing artery of East Austin nightlife. With a history dating back more than 100 years, the crusty building has a quiet grace; it serves as testimony to resilience as much as neglect.     

Step inside the darkened restaurant on a bustling weekend night, and the place, with its exposed wooden walls and dim wire-caged light bulbs, feels like an unadvertised Mexican saloon discovered after wandering a bit too far from your beachside resort. The chatter at the crowded bar percolates in the near-dark, and strangers seated closely at adjacent café tables mingle on the brink of new friendships.

Papi Tino's has the power to transport you to the vulnerability and intoxication of vacation, to conjure another country, another time, one maybe that didn't have the luxury of indoor plumbing. It's the kind of casual hang that makes you feel like you've always been expected, the kind of place you really want to love. But a great restaurant requires more than good intentions and a charming rustic aesthetic. After more than three months in business, Papi Tino's has proven that it can hit a few culinary high notes, but its dishes lack the lasting impact of the unique establishment.

Chips and salsa are not a birthright in this state, but it has started to feel that way, so the lack of an offering at Papi Tino's is confusing. Citrusy guacamole ($5) served in cute, vintage tin bowls assuages and compounds any salsa-related regret. Bursts of fresh lime also provide the primary flavor in the salpicon de res ($13), the bright fruit trampling the taste of the cold shredded-beef salad.

The Gulf of Mexico gets short shrift with the camarones ala diabla ($15). The two massive farm-raised tiger prawns from Asia lack the briny taste of Gulf shrimp, and their ample size does not distract from the slightly tough meat. The shrimp primarily serve as an expensive way to deliver the mild peanut salsa and tomato reduction.

A rich butter sauce drunk on white wine and fortified with garlic and earthy mushrooms swamps the mild queso panela al horno ($9). Guajillo chiles fail to express themselves in the dish that feels like a shotgun marriage between Mexican and French traditions.

Several enchiladas ($13) make up the bulk of the regular entrées on the limited menu and come without the familiar rice and beans. A chocolaty mole lacking complexity hides dry chicken enchiladas like a heavy spackle. The creamy suizas pack a surprising and welcomed kick, but not one strong enough to distract from the fact that the enchiladas de langosta ($21) held a paucity of small chunks of lobster. The rojas sauce, with its plumlike sweetness and deep burgundy color, was the perfect tangy accompaniment for cheese enchiladas but rendered mushy the vegetable enchiladas, with meek uniform cuts of the kind often found in bags.

Daily specials complement the smallish menu, and on a couple of visits proved to be the stars of the meal. Slightly charred corn tortillas cradled excellent tender duck tacos ($17), the delicious meat moist with fat and punctuated by cilantro. A sensuous cherry reduction and sweet piloncillo sauce (think brown sugar with some restraint) balanced well with the gamey and small but perfectly cooked quail ($19). But not all the specials deserve the name. The expected fat of a ribeye was the only thing that signified this particular cut that came smothered in cheese and drowning in a viscous beer reduction that hinted at the unwelcome nostalgia of Salisbury steak.

The dessert menu features only a few simple dishes. Warm crunchy churros ($7) sprinkled lightly with cinnamon and sugar crackle and dissolve in your mouth and come with a lightly bitter chocolate sauce. The traditional sticks that highlight the dessert offerings come with berries that also make an appearance with peanut ice cream in the helado de mazapan ($9). Slightly frozen, the nutty ice cream that requires a fork resembles taffy and also harkens to the peanut salsa from earlier in the evening, and the fried tortilla bowl in which it comes tastes just like the chips sans salsa from earlier and those that comprise the chilaquiles ($11) at brunch. The dish, served with chicken and a perfectly executed over-easy egg, even if, as a friend did, you ask for over-medium, are ostensibly presented as breakfast nachos.

From the chips to the ubiquitous avocado and lime and the homogenous vegetables, one gets the feeling at times that Papi Tino's is trying to do too much with too many of the same ingredients, making dishes coming out of the kitchen feel redundant at times.

The brunch highlight came in the form of a grownup aqua fresca of the day (pineapple and watermelon) served with Herradura Silver tequila ($9). It's the kind of tropical drink that makes your eyelids heavy with late afternoon sunlight and can erase hours from a day. With its extensive list of mezcal-based cocktails and freshly squeezed lime juice and agave margaritas, Papi Tino's tempts you to release yourself to the space, day or night.

Though none of the dishes I had could be considered failures, with the exception of a couple of the specials, Papi Tino's did not leave a lasting impression with any of its plates. Owner and trained architect Alan Gonzalez, a Westlake High School alumnus, has created an inviting and unique environment at his rustic bungalow – maybe a little too rustic if you ask the women at the table next to me who had to wear gloves and scarves one evening to combat cold weather that went unmitigated by the lack of a heater. Water, poured from old wine bottles, is served in old jelly jars, friendly though sometimes slow waiters make you feel like you've stumbled into a friend's dinner party and The Kane West Trio, the best band I've ever heard at an Austin restaurant, swings out on the porch like Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery in an impromptu jam session.

Papi Tino's is the kind of restaurant that makes you want to sit down and stay a while; you just wish that they could elevate their food to meet their mood. I've visited Papi Tino's more times and with more guests than any restaurant I've reviewed, each time hoping that they would make me love them. I'm left feeling like I want to take a shot of tequila with the place, slap it warmly on the shoulders with both hands and encourage the place to focus up and deliver on its promise. It should aspire to be the Mexican version of Justine's.

The building with a storied history that incudes time as a typewriter museum and a home to underground hip-hop parties in the mid-'90s has soul and character. It's the type of place you'd love to put on your list of regular spots for dinner and drinks. It's the type of place you want to root for and see succeed, for selfish reasons and for the benefit of the East Austin scene. But each time I've departed, I've been haunted by the lingering feeling that unless some tweaks are made, Papi Tino's may end up becoming just another piece of East Austin history.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

Papi Tino's