Things are starting to look up for SouthBridge, if new eatery Tapas Papa Frita is any indication.
This vibrant Spanish restaurant is a welcome sign of life in these parts. The space where it's located — upstairs from swanky Marcellino's, right next to the canal bridge — has been vacant since developer Fred Unger unveiled his ambitious, all-independent retail and restaurant complex in Old Town Scottsdale in 2007.
Originally, it was slated to become restaurateur Peter Kasperski's Mexican Standoff. But after months of anticipation dragged into months of pessimism, hand in hand with the recession, the jokes about "Mexican Standstill" stopped being funny, and eventually Kasperski bowed out. Soon afterward, veteran Valley chef Joseph Gutierrez announced that he planned to resurrect Tapas Papa Frita, a concept that he launched in Phoenix in the '90s.
I can't compare the latest incarnation to its predecessor, but I'm impressed with what Gutierrez has done this go-round.
The space is big, brash, and colorful, with a two-tiered dining room surrounded by windows that overlook a spacious patio and Stetson Drive just below. Just inside the front door, there's an inviting bar area where you can wait for a table or hang out with a glass of Spanish wine, and beyond that, there's a small stage that often showcases acoustic Spanish musicians and even flamenco performers.
Although I wish there were some more intimate dining nooks in this space — and I'm not keen on the servers' costume-y garb, complete with crimson sashes and neckerchiefs — I appreciate that Tapas Papa Frita is a good place to bring a group. If the flamenco dancers are stomping away, you can get pretty boisterous and no one will hear you. Subdued, this is not.
Much as I expected not to like that energy, it's hard to be in a bad mood here, as the place is so upbeat and genuine. During my visits, the waitstaff was attentive but not overly so, with an enthusiasm for the food that was infectious. One night, Gutierrez himself stepped out of the kitchen to make the rounds in the dining room, and he was both gracious and funny, eager to recommend dishes based on our preferences.
There's a lot to choose from here, with about 50 different cold and hot tapas, as well as full dinner entrées. Even in the way of beverages, there's an extensive list of Spanish and international wines, as well as three different kinds of sangria.
Cava sangria, made with sparkling wine, was crisp and refreshing on a hot, late-summer night, and while I also liked the just-sweet-enough vino verde white sangria, the cava version was more unusual. Meanwhile, the red sangria was up there with the best recipes in town, with a mysteriously spicy element that had my friends slurping with delight. It went beautifully with the food, too.
Dinner started off with a basket of freshly baked rolls and a ramekin of garlicky, tangy allioli, the Catalan version of aioli. It was creamy, salty, and melted right into hunks of warm bread, and if our tapas hadn't started showing up promptly, I would've been content to keep nibbling on it. Indeed, we were offered seconds when the basket was empty.
That's great, but the tapas really were delicious. If I could pick out the thing I liked most about almost all of them, it would be the sauces, hands down. Each sauce was complex and distinctive, easily as good as anything it covered. For example, the albondigas meatballs were cooked just right — moist and firm, with a great beefy flavor — but the sweet tomato and onion sauce filling the bowl took the dish to a higher plane. If you don't save bread for this, prepare to get out your spoon.
A friend and I practically squealed when we tasted the deep, rich Tempranillo-paprika sauce that permeated a dish of fork-tender roasted oxtail (rabo de buey), carrot, and red pepper. Never had oxtail? Here, it's like a divine version of pot roast — so flavorful.
Likewise, pieces of rabbit were stewed in a lipsmacking roasted pepper sauce. And I adored the surprising sweetness of a squid ink and tomato sauce smothering a plate of txipirones (stuffed squid). The dish might look intimidating with its thick black gravy, but I dare you to taste it.
Skewers of lamb (pincho moruno) were juicy and nicely seasoned, served with lemon for a puckery contrast (go ahead, give it a squeeze). I alternated between bites of that and the tortilla de patatas, a thick Spanish omelet filled with chunks of potato. Mushrooms braised in garlic and sherry were tasty enough to convert one of my wary dinner dates into a 'shroom lover.
Crab-stuffed peppers in a saffron sauce weren't bad, although the crabmeat had a vaguely metallic tinge that struck me as that of canned. I preferred plump, fresh shrimp cooked in garlic, white wine, and slightly spicy guindilla pepper.
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Although we didn't venture into the entrées, we did split an order of paella, just to see if we'd found the holy grail of Spanish rice in the Valley. So far, I haven't had any luck, and here, too, the Valenciana paella was lacking that distinctive crust of browned rice on the bottom of the pan, called socarrat. Sure, it was packed with perfectly cooked shrimp, mussels, clams, and chicken, but nevertheless, the rice at the bottom was verging on watery. Alas, I'll keep looking, and I'll keep coming back here for tapas.
I'll also come for flan, but not crema catalana. The former was a thick, elegant custard with a craveable, deeply caramelized sauce, while the latter was both overcooked and under-brûléed. Another glass of sangria sounded good at that point.
Still, it was almost entirely hits at Tapas Papa Frita, making this a very promising newcomer. Good thing the dining room is big, because I suspect it'll soon be pretty full.