I’ve been a fan of chef Drew Bent and his food since the 2018 opening of his upscale taqueria LOLA 55 in San Diego’s East Village. Here, he brought owner Frank Vizcarra’s modern vision of the Tijuana tacos of his youth to life and earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand casual dining award for his efforts. This was on the heels of his stint as a sous with acclaimed chef René Redzepi during Noma’s pop-up in Tulum, Mexico.
So, when I heard Drew had left LOLA 55 earlier this year, I was surprised and more than a little sad. I’ve enjoyed his tacos on many occasions, and it was a rare regular stop for me. Last year, Drew generously helped me with a successful charity event, “A Taco for Tony”, a dinner I hosted with former Anthony Bourdain fixer and friend Zamir Gotta.
But, when I heard he was opening a casual eatery, Papalito at Little Thief Wine Bar and Kitchen in North Park, I was happy again (cue Gene Kelly) and looked forward to his new venture. The chef announced that Papalito’s menu would be based on the concept of “Sonoran barbecue”.
What is Sonoran Barbecue?
Sonoran barbecue? What? I’ve had plenty of Sonoran beef, considered the best in terms of quality in Mexico. And I’ve judged and attended grilling events that included teams of Sonoran chefs. I was hosted on an extensive tour of Hermosillo-based steakhouses in 2019. And not once have I heard the term Sonoran barbecue.
During a recent lunch at Papaltio, Drew dispelled the mystique. “One of our servers asked me what Sonoran barbecue was. I created the name during a drive through the northern Mexican desert, where you can smell all the herbs through the car window. I wanted to serve a variety of smoked meats, and while researching, was surprised that I didn’t find the term “Sonoran barbecue” anywhere. But in my mind, west Texas barbecue, northern Mexican cuisine, (the food of) Arizona, and the bounty of California share a distinctive style and form a single food region.”
Ultimately, Papalito is R&D for the chef, who, along with partner Bottle Craft, will be opening the larger Papalo restaurant in South Park later this year. Papalito’s casual menu is a sampler of bigger things to come. It includes several sandwiches crafted of the restaurant’s smoked meats and topped with produce sourced from local farmers markets. Sandwich names are a playful take on the Little Thief wine bar location.
A favorite was The Ponzi, which was not a scheme at all. Thick, pillowy slices of sourdough are heaped with succulent, flavorful birria of smoked tri-tip which comingles with broccolini and fontina cheese. The sandwich is buttered and lightly toasted—melting the fontina for a grilled cheese sandwich that puts mom’s white bread and American cheese budget-lunch classic to shame. It’s served with a side of savory consomé for the requisite dipping.
Another criminally delicious option is The Launderer. Herb smoked turkey breast is dressed with juicy heirloom tomatoes, crisp butter lettuce, almond morita salsa, and a delightful ginger aioli, which gives the sandwich a sweet and spicy component and blends well with the turkey’s hearty smokiness. This one should be on everyone’s “Most Wanted” list.
The Bandito, which features savory smoked carnitas, and The Buccaneer, which highlights citrus-cured and seared local tuna served on a Japanese milk bun–sourced from Oceanside’s Hokkaido Bread Company–are other choices. The menu also includes BBQ eggplant and smoked mushroom sandwiches, sure to please vegetarian and vegan diners.
Other offerings, under a section of the menu cheekily titled “Not Sandwiches”, are a light cheese crisp of a filo dough “tortilla” finished with melted fontina, filled with braised Swiss chard, and served with a tangy guacamole salsa. Perhaps one of the best dishes is the smoked baby back ribs. The artfully arranged plate features two smoked pork ribs generously dressed with a boozy cherry morita barbecue sauce and served with house-made cornbread and pickle slaw.
Salads, charcuterie plates, desserts, and brunch items–such as sage butternut French toast–are also available.
Diners can enjoy local craft beers or wine from Little Thief’s cellar, which include vintages produced ranging from Napa Valley to Weinwiertel, Austria. When Papalito opens in December, we’d love to see Baja California and other Mexican wines on the list, which would pair perfectly with Drew’s take on the cuisine of northern Mexico.
It’s apparent that Drew is enjoying his newly found independence. The chef had a lightness to him that I hadn’t seen since his early days at LOLA 55. “I have one partner, but otherwise, this is my baby,” he concluded. “Papalo is the name of my favorite Mexican herb. The leaf looks like a butterfly wing, which is how it got its name. Just like me. I’m out on my own and spreading my wings.”
PRICE: Sandwiches range from $13-$15. “Not Sandwich” items range from $10 for smoked tomato toast to $20 for the BBQuterie board of smoked meats and cheeses. Brunch items range from $4 for saffron red rice to $16 for the cheese crisp enchilada.
HOURS: Open daily from 12-10PM.