Tex-Mex and barbecue are the twin pillars of Texas cuisine, but mixing them together can feel about as wrong as kissing your sister. Foods with that much personality and history behind them just don’t seem like they’d get along on the same plate. True, Austin’s El Arroyo restaurant tossed some barbecue sauce on a chicken taco way back in the ’90s, but it wasn’t what you’d call a fully realized vision.
Papa’s Smokehouse and Cantina
300 W Central Av, FW. 817-945-2010. 9am-8pm Sun, 11am-9pm Tue-Thu, 11am-10pm Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
With the opening of Papa’s Smokehouse and Cantina, the Cardona family has broken the taboo and picked up the challenge of fusing these traditions into what amounts to a new cuisine. The menu modestly announces “BBQ done with a Mexican twist,” but that doesn’t really do justice to the synthesis of styles that can result (at their better moments) in a marriage that is greater, somehow, than the sum of its parts.
You can get your barbecue or your Tex-Mex straight up at Papa’s, but the dishes that bring both together are the ones that will put the place on the map.
The Cardona family has run a tortilla factory on Meacham Boulevard for decades, so you’ll be sure to get a good basket of chips if you order one — they didn’t come free, but with the house salsa, it was a good investment. Chunky with the sultry smokiness of chipotle peppers, the dip proclaimed the kitchen’s core competencies: fire and smoke.
There’s already some buzz around town about the Papa’s Burger, and for good reason — it’s the one with the cheese enchilada slipped right on top of the patty. It’s as good as it sounds, but that doesn’t mean the other specialty burgers ought to be ignored. The kitchen did a fine job with a poblano burger, a thick three-quarter-pound patty smothered with spicy roasted peppers and gooey Oaxaca cheese. Instead of an enchilada on top, it was a deconstructed relleno. I passed on mayonnaise and mustard in favor of the house barbecue sauce, a thick, fiery spread sweetened with blackstrap molasses. The sauce worked best with the onion rings, too, which were thick cut and crunchy, though with a heavier breading than they needed.
The pulled pork sandwich was an outlier to both the Tex-Mex and the Tex-barbecue themes, but if you’re in the mood for smoked pig, you could do a lot worse. Lightly sauced with a peppery Carolina mop and crowned with shredded cabbage slaw as frilly and white as a communion dress, it was about as good as non-native ’cue gets. The surprise treat was the side of mac ’n’ cheese that came jeweled with diced green chiles for a good clean kick.
Papa’s brisket tacos were so good, I went back the next day and had them again on my own dime. The cooks took smoked beef brisket, crusty but tender enough to melt in the mouth, piled it high on soft corn tortillas, and then dressed it with roasted poblano peppers, grilled onions, sliced avocado, and shredded cheese. More of the house barbecue sauce sealed the deal. The idea is so simple, it’s a wonder nobody has pulled it off before.
The spirit of fusion has yet to work its magic on the dessert menu, which features sopapillas and banana pudding but not both (as yet) in the same dish. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Until then, the banana pudding had a silky custard with the distinct, homemade taste of scalded milk, and it would work well as a finale to either cuisine.
Whether dining indoors with a tasteful collection of Stockyards kitsch or on the sprawling, shady patio, Papa’s is a great place to relax and watch the Northside neighborhood on the make. Unfortunately, it’s still a bit too leisurely to get in and out of for a weekday lunch without having to call back to the office with another excuse. When the liquor license comes in (the staff told me a few more weeks), the minutes may pass more quickly.
[box_info]Papa’s Smokehouse and Cantina
Chips and salsa $1.99
Poblano burger $10.75
Pulled pork sandwich $6.25
Papa’s brisket tacos $10.25
Banana pudding $3.25[/box_info]