By Tim CarmanFood reporter/columnistJune 22, 2017
Chef Jose Flores, right, poses for a photo with customer John Lupori of Hopewell, Va. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Gas stations are the unavoidable eyesores of a country beholden to the internal combustion engine. No matter how many news highlights beam from Gas Station TV, these fueling depots are an assault on the senses: concrete stained with the grease of a thousand pickups, pump handles sticky with sweat, air thick with the sweet, toxic aromas of benzene, convenience foods so nutritionally empty their first ingredient is regret.
But it’s at these aesthetic dead zones that people often seek their daily sustenance, only steps from the noxious fuel that sustains their vehicles. A gas station may be the least likely destination for dinner, yet its allure is not difficult to grasp. Filling-station fare holds the same attraction as Maine lobster rolls from a truck, Sichuan wontons at a roadside motel and north Indian street food inside a supermarket: It’s the thrill of the unexpected, a treasure buried in the last place you’d look for it.
El Papi Street Tacos occupies an awkward sliver inside a Shell station in Elkridge, Md. If the location sounds familiar, it should. It previously served as the launchpad for chef Rodrigo Albarran-Torres, a former airline pilot whose fortunes took flight when he opened R&R Taqueria inside the station in 2009 and came to the attention of Guy Fieri’s producers. Albarran-Torres has since moved across the street to a more refined location, complete with barnyard and industrial decor. In less than a decade, “Chef Rod” has become such a local celebrity that his face now graces the signage of his new restaurant.
A vestige of R&R still remains at El Papi, though. His name is Jose Flores, a chef from Puebla, Mexico, who used to lead the kitchen for Albarran-Torres. Earlier this year, Flores paired up with business partner Patricia Pineda to open El Papi, a taqueria that holds down the same space that his former boss occupied inside the clown-colored gas station. As if to compete with the corporate Shell branding, Flores and Pineda have hung El Papi banners on practically every vertical surface within a 100-yard radius. If you don’t know there’s a new taqueria in Elkridge, you must have your head up your . . . phone.
When Flores and Pineda call their signature food “real Mexican street tacos,” they’re not invoking the language of Madison Avenue to convince you of the superiority of an inferior snack. As part of their business, the partners have hired a team to prepare corn tortillas from scratch. I’m not talking about a crew that mixes water with masa harina, the kind available at any corner Latino market. I’m talking about workers who soak dried corn in hot water dosed with slaked lime, a process called nixtamalization. The technique is as ancient as the pre-Columbian civilizations that developed it.
The corn tortillas arrive fresh daily at El Papi, and no matter what filling you desire, your taco will come swaddled in a single exquisite round, not two, which serves to underscore the preciousness of the tortilla’s provenance. The wrapper releases a small bouquet of corn with every bite, as if the very act of chewing aerosolizes a tropical fragrance locked inside that griddled round. Many tortillas are just bit players in the taco experience. These are the stars.
Tacos filled with chorizo, left, and carnitas. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Or one of the stars. Flores also dotes over his fillings, despite some limitations in his tiny kitchen. Health officials apparently won’t permit a spit rotisserie, the kind necessary for legit al pastor, the spiced and marinated pork that can trace its roots back to Lebanon and the Middle East. So, the chef has jury-rigged a version that, while not traditional, rings smoky, sweet, and true to the spirit of the dish. Flores’s cecina beef — a long ribbon of beef sliced from top round — is a blast of concentrated flavor, at once salty and intense. The lengua, or beef tongue, almost melts on contact with your own.
Flores and his staff prepare almost all the meats in-house, save for the chorizo, a Mexican-style sausage that drowns everything in its path — corn tortilla, bolillo bread, flour tortilla — with a rush of chile-infused oil. I ordered the chorizo twice, once in a quesadilla and another time in a burrito, and both were grease traps. Delicious, but grease traps nonetheless. Flores expects to make his own chorizo soon, and I can only hope his version will put a cap on that oil flow.
All tacos are garnished with cilantro, diced white onions, and slender lengths of green onion, which add these clean, fresh, and radiant notes. To complete the onion trifecta, every taco order also comes with a cebollita Asada, or grilled spring onion with its wilted and charred stalk still attached. Doused with lime juice, the accompaniment is sort of an onion chaser. The only misfire among the taco options is the shrimp-and-fish combination, which tasted a day or two past its peak, even with an ungodly amount of lime juice squirted on it.
The beauty of El Papi’s menu is that Flores’s painstakingly prepared meats can be slipped into any of the available dishes: tacos, burritos, quesadillas and tortas (served on a soft bolillo roll made in-house) and accented with homemade red or green salsas, both turbocharged with twin chiles. Outside the tacos, my favorite bite is a chicken torta souped up with stringy Oaxacan cheese, black beans, avocado and a pickled hot pepper that elevates the sandwich into another orbit.
Once you figure out your preferred meat-and-bread combinations, you’ll next have to decide where to eat them. In the car? On one of the stools inside El Papi? At home? Your best bet may be to pull up a chair on the patio, next to the planter boxes filled with calla lilies and hostas, where you can take in the view of the gas pumps, the concrete and the endless parade of cars.
Why dine among these many insults to the senses? Just so you can say you were there when El Papi got its start at a gas station. Because with food like this, the taqueria is bound to go places far from here.