Like a parrot, the décor screams of colors--hot pink and sapphire blue. Don't worry, for some reason it's easy on the eyes and almost downright tropical. We half expected an island breeze to blow our way but maybe it was from the cooling ceiling fans.
Silk trees trimmed with white lights, hanging plants, painted flowers on the walls and Mexican tile accents all contribute to the overall relaxing setting. A DeGrazia painting graces one wall. Ted's wife Marion loaned the painting to Alice Mazon, the current owner.
We requested a drink menu but there was none. What kind of marketing is that for a cantina? Even a list of imported brews might tempt me down another path. We ordered the house margarita ($3.75) made with Montezuma tequila and a pre-mix. Well-concocted, it wasn't sweet, and we could definitely taste and feel the tequila after a few sips.
Salsas were described as spicy and mild. None of us thought that the salsa was truly spicy--so much for our heat-seared, jaded palates. Chips arrived warm and crispy as tortillas are fried on the premises in small batches. The menu states that lard is not used but canola oil is. Manager Rich Lauriha said the directive was initiated over 10 years ago, so Papagayo was ahead of the trend in eating healthy fats.
Freshly made guacamole dip (market price) debuted topped with shredded cheddar cheese. No lettuce or filler interfered with the chunky mashed avocados blended with bits of green chile, onions and a hint of lemon juice. Our server brought more warm chips to the table without us having to make a request.
When there's a chill in the air, tortilla soup (cup $4.15) calls my name. This was a soothing combination of golden, rich chicken broth with finely minced tomatoes and green chiles crowned with tortilla chips, melted jack cheese and a few slices of avocado. Each spoonful was the perfect orchestration of broth and chip, caressed by the creaminess of melted cheese.
George opted for the albondigas soup (bowl $6.55). He thought the light tomato broth salty but Martha and I ranked it bland, though the meatballs were nicely spiced.
Martha's cazuela soup ($4.15) was the heartiest of all. It's a traditional Sonoran stew of rich meaty broth made from carne seca or roast beef zapped with a flavor burst from ample amounts of cilantro. Fresh onions and chopped tomatoes added near completion compliments the texture of well-cooked meats reminiscent of what Americans consider chili.
I ordered the Pipian chicken ($12.35), described as a whole chicken breast served with a special sauce of red chile, ground peanuts, herbs and spices. Unfortunately, it didn't meet my expectations. The chicken was cut up into large chunks and the sauce was overpowered by cumin. I spooned the alleged spicy salsa on top to minimize the cumin and jack up the much needed zest; it worked.
A man of basic needs, George ordered the #4 combination ($10.25)--ground beef taco, beef tamale, cheese enchilada with rice and beans. We thought the ground beef taco was the best of the plate because it was nicely seasoned and lacked the greasiness that often comes with a recently fried taco shell. (It was must be the canola oil!) Enhanced by chopped black olives, the tamale tasted much better than what you find on most combination plates around town.
Martha chose her favorite, the chiles rellenos plate ($10.95). She ate with gusto but wished there were fewer seeds in the green chiles.
When describing a dining experience, service can be an afterthought unless it's bad. At Papagayo, the unobtrusive service increased our enjoyment of the meal. Iced tea was replenished while the glasses were half full. An empty plate was brought to the table when George was served his combination plate. They proactively anticipated his request for an empty plate for the corn husk.
Although we were bordering on full, the appealing dessert choices seduced us. We chose flan ($4.95), almendrado ($4.75) and sopapilla ($3.15). The flan was superlative. If you like your flan custardy, get over it--Papagayo's version is dense, caramel-ness on a plate.
After a heavy meal, a salute to the cloud-like almendrado seemed like a wise choice. Try the layered red, white and green meringue topped with a very subtle almond sauce, perhaps too subtle after the intense flan.
Instead of the usual dollar pancake-sized sopapillas, one giant pastry pillow sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, then drizzled with honey, smothered our plate. I was in awe of its size and sweetness--think dessert popover--although Martha thought it tasted more like Indian fry bread and wished for more honey.
Sweetness may lie in the mouth of the beholder but quality, longevity and earnest service remains universal at Papagayo.