By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH
Step inside El Papalote on 24th Street, and exit the world of the average Mission taqueria. While you may still be greeted by the familiar sizzle of the grill and staccato of the meat cleaver, one look at the menu alerts the hardened burrito junkie that tradition has met uber-hip Valencia.
Alongside carne asada, chicken, chorizo and chile verde stand offerings such as vegan soyrizo (a soy version of the Mexican pork sausage), vegetarian burritos with zucchini and eggplant, and chicken or tofu mole.
“It’s a good mix between authenticity and yuppieness,” says Aaron Bochner, 26, one of many customers on a Sunday afternoon. The mole is so revered among Bochner’s friends that one took a chicken mole burrito to his girlfriend back home in the Midwest. A special message had been slipped between the layers of aluminum foil: “Will you marry me?”
It’s a way “to prepare Mexican food in a progressive way,” says co-owner Miguel Escobedo, 37, as he sits in the restaurant’s brightly-colored dining room, two of the namesake papalotes or Mexican kites, hanging from the ceiling.
Escobedo, who DJ’s when he’s not managing the business, opened the restaurant with his brother Victor, 10 years ago last Tuesday.
Although his family had been in the restaurant business for 40 years — his family runs Celia’s restaurant on Judah Street in the Outer Sunset – he wasn’t thrilled with the menu and sought the “freedom to create new things.”
Escobedo decided to take a fresher, healthier and more presentable approach to Mexican cooking. The brothers focused on “expanding the definition of what Mexican food is,” Escobedo says.
In doing so, they have walked a fine line between tradition and burrito hip. The restaurant eschews lard and MSG, opting for white meat chicken and lean cuts of steak. The mole may be served with tofu, but it is still made from his grandmother’s recipe, and their roasted, slightly creamy salsa is modeled after the pico de gallo served at family gatherings from their childhood in Mexico City.
Even with this new approach, with a taqueria on seemingly every corner in the Mission, opening another Mexican restaurant tempted fate.
“It was super, incredibly, unimaginably hard … the hardest time personally in my life,” Escobedo says, adding that the brothers put everything they had into the business.
Although it took three years for the restaurant to get established in the community, the hard work has paid off. El Papalote has expanded to a second location on Fulton Street, and together the two locations employ about 20 people serving 800 to 1000 customers a day. The 24th Street restaurant’s 685 reviews on Yelp average a four-star rating.
“It’s just really good food,” says Ray Dinz, who ordered a chicken burrito. “It tastes healthier, the ingredients seem fresher.”
The restaurant’s official 10th anniversary was March 17, and the owners are celebrating with a bash on Tuesday, March 24 at Milk on Haight Street, presented by the reggae DJ crew Jah Warrior Shelter High Fidelity. Free food from Papalote will be served at 10pm. Later in the month, they’re having a smaller dinner for friends and family.
While Papalote’s healthy and veggie-conscious approach has earned it the respect of the Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking crowd, with tall cans of Milwaukee’s finest available in the fridge, its menu of tofu and its address off Valencia Street attracts fewer of the neighborhood’s Latino residents. Escobedo hopes to change that.
“I hope more people in the Latino community can come to appreciate the healthier aspect of our cuisine,” reflecting on what he sees as an invisible border that runs down Valencia Street. He adds that those Latino customers he does see love what the restaurant is doing.
Not everyone loves the healthy approach, however.
“Give the people what they want … I want sour cream, avocado, and lard…precious, delicious LARD!” begs Yelp reviewer Rodney P.
Though business amidst the economic downturn remains brisk — the restaurant is just as busy at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon as it is on a Monday lunch hour — Escobedo says the economic downturn has led to a “decrease in overall growth, but nothing too dramatic.” He says that the restaurant has lost some customers who can no longer afford to eat out, but has gained others that choose to eat there over more expensive options.
Escobedo remains optimistic and in the meantime is busy planning for the restaurant’s next stage of the growth: El Papalote East Bay.