Talking tacos and tequilas with managing partner Chris Dallo
1. Tell us about Papi Chulo’s
We serve a menu of authentic Mexican dishes along with a lot of off-the-wall menu items that are not traditional to Mexico. We’re a complete scratch kitchen. Everything is made fresh, with love.
2. Do you consider Papi Chulo’s a traditional Mexican restaurant?
No! We have some traditional Mexican dishes such as our Chile Rellenos and our Street Tacos. But we also have a lot of our own creations that you won’t find in Mexico. We’re still working with classic items but we’re putting our own twist on them and adding a lot of flavor.
3. What do you mean by off-the-wall menu items?
That includes things like our specialty tacos, which we came up with on our own. We have a fried chicken taco, which we call a Southern Belle. Our Bob Marley Taco is as Jamaican as it gets.
4. Your menu is very large - can you tell us about how you put it together?
I think our menu seems big because we wanted to do our tacos a la carte - letting you pick which tacos you wanted and how many you wanted. We didn’t want to have a standard plate for everyone. From there we wanted to let people get any taco as either a burrito or a bowl - it gives a lot of variety and lets our guests choose exactly what they want.
5. Has the menu changed or evolved from your opening last Fall  to now?
Yes it’s definitely evolved. We've actually condensed the menu from when we first opened, and the food itself has evolved in terms of flavor and consistency. We’ve always made everything from scratch, using ingredients that are fresh, not frozen. But that doesn’t mean everything’s always worked out the way we’ve wanted it to. For example, when we started out we weren’t getting the reviews on places like Yelp that we wanted for our salsa. When I saw that I reached out to people to find out what they didn’t like and I incorporated their ideas back into the food. Our salsa has come a long way and now people are raving about it.
6. A lot of restauranteurs are hurt by criticisms on places like Yelp...
I take the feedback to heart. Most of the reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon have been great. But we can make mistakes, and when we do, the Yelpers will tell us. It’s a chance to learn and to get better. When you have a lot of people working in the kitchen and cooking from scratch, inconsistency in preparation can creep in. The feedback we received encouraged us to take a close look at how we were running things and we’ve since implemented a lot of operational systems and procedures to increase our level of consistency and quality.
7. How would you describe the restaurant ambiance?
During the day our ambiance is very family oriented. At Papi Chulo's kids eat for $2, every day, and that means we see a lot of kids and families. At night we want to have more of a bar atmosphere where our focus is on Tacos and Tequilas. We’re now staying open until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays with live music both nights.
8. Who did the artwork in the restaurant?
The main pictures have been done by local artist Sean Farmer, who is a good friend of mine. I really love art and wanted to have it in the restaurant.
9. Where did you get the name Papi Chulo’s?
Papi Chulo’s is about fun, and that starts with the name. Papi Chulo’s, means “good looking man” although some people interpret it as “pimp daddy.” It’s meant to be funny - whenever anybody asks me the name of my restaurant and I tell them it’s Papi Chulo’s, if they’re Hispanic, they’re going to laugh. Even some non-Spanish speakers know what it means - it just puts a smile on everyone’s face, which was the idea. The element of fun is also why everything in the restaurant is bright.
10. What attracted you to a Mexican themed restaurant when you were opening Papi Chulo’s?
Mexican food is very interesting to me. It has a lot of bold flavors that impart a depth to the food. It’s what I, Chris, personally enjoy. That’s why I chose Mexican for Papi Chulo's.
11. How would you introduce someone to the menu on their first visit?
I’d tell them it’s an absolute must to try the Mexican Street Corn. It’s an ear of fire roasted corn that’s smothered with garlic mayonnaise, cotija cheese and sprinkled with chili powder. We literally put the ear of corn over a fire to roast it. And the mayonnaise we use is escalated in flavor. It has a lot of garlic, lime and our other secret seasonings that make it amazing. This is a street corn that you’d find in the food carts in Mexico.
The next thing I’d point people to is our Chicken Flautas. They’re made with guajillo-braised chicken and Chihuahua cheese that’s rolled in a tortilla and fried. Chihuahua cheese comes from Chihuahua, Mexico and is like a mozzarella, but with a lot more punch.
12. What would you recommend for the adventurous?
If they’re adventurous then they have to try the Bob Marley, that’s for sure. It’s a taco or burrito made with jerk chicken, coleslaw, black beans, mango salsa and fried plantains! It’s really good. You have a choice of a flour tortilla, or a corn tortilla - hard or soft.
Another great taco for the adventurous is the Duck Dynasty. It’s another item that’s come a long way from when we first introduced it, based on feedback from Yelp reviewers. It’s made with duck, which already makes it a little different. When it first came out we served it in a cherry glaze. That didn’t really work as a taco. We took the feedback from Yelp and talked to guests who came in and used that to re-design the taco completely. It’s now made with a mahogany sauce, our napa coleslaw, pineapple relish, chipotle creme, pickled red onions and cotija cheese. The duck itself is brined for 24 hours, then seared. That gives it a crispy skin and tender, tasty meat inside. As you bite into the taco you’re getting a lot of different flavors, and they really work well together. This is an example of a dish that’s incredible, but didn’t start that way. It’s really a collaboration between our team and our guests.
Our Pork Belly Taco is another item that’s just ridiculous. In my opinion, it’s our best taco. It’s my personal favorite and we sell more Pork Belly Tacos than any other kind. We sear the pork belly to lock in the flavor, then we braise it in the oven for about 2 hours. We use a teriyaki glaze and everyone loves it.
13. Any hidden gems?
Yes, the Chile Rellenos. When people come in they naturally think about the tacos and burritos. If we don’t recommend the Chile Rellenos people will rarely order them. But they’re insane. Many places that sell Chile Rellenos will give you a choice of meat or cheese - we give you one of each. They’re made with huge poblano peppers - one stuffed with beef picadillo and another with Chihuahua cheese. The stuffed pepper is put in an egg batter and fried, then covered with queso cheese and served with rice and beans. It’s a phenomenal dish. There’s a hint of spice to the peppers, but we’ve removed the seeds, so the spice level is quite low.
14. When people think about the signature items at Papi Chulo’s what do you think will come to their minds?
The word is definitely out about our guacamole. Nobody does it the way we do and it sells a lot. I love guacamole. When we started out I thought about doing a table side guacamole - it’s fancy and shows off the freshness of the guacamole, but you know what? Everyone does it. I wanted to do something different. I started messing around with ideas and came up with some different styles, like our Caribbean Guacamole, made with added mango, habanero and honey. The next thing I did was to offer a flight of guacamole - three large portions. That’s different and it’s very, very popular, especially during happy hour and at dinner. It’s a great sharing dish.
Another signature item that’s setting us apart is our ceviche.
15. What exactly is ceviche and what makes yours special?
Ceviche is proteins that cook with acid, which is lime. We lightly boil our shrimp and scallops to give them a nice color and texture but our fish is cooked entirely in lime juice. There are different variations of ceviche made around the world. It’s the cooking with lime that unites the different styles. We started with the idea of cooking in lime and did our own thing from there. Ceviche is relatively new to a lot of people in Jacksonville, but on the other hand we have a lot of people who come to Papi Chulo’s just for our ceviche, so I’d say the popularity of the dish is definitely growing.
16. What is your Mexican ice cream?
It starts with a ball of vanilla ice cream. We dip it in egg, roll it in crushed Corn Flakes and cinnamon, then freeze the whole thing. We repeat this process for a few hours to build up the coating. Then we quickly deep fry the ice cream to give the outside a crunchy shell. They’re huge and they’re good!
17. You have a lot of interesting daily specials. Can you tell us about them? In particular, what are Horni Thursdays?
We’re putting together weekly specials for each day of the week. Mondays, for example, will be half off appetizers from 4pm to close. On Tuesdays from 4pm to close we have all you can eat tacos for $12 along with $5 Patron shots.
I like fun and there are a lot of fun items on our menu. We’re always seeing people read through the menu and laughing. Horni Thursdays refers to our Hornitos! A Hornito is a tequila and on Thursdays from 4pm to close we offer $3 Hornitos shots and $8 Hornito pitchers.
18. What's the 5-lb burrito challenge?
The challenge is another fun side of Papi Chulo's. When people come in to try it we make a big deal about it. It’s hard to eat that much food and most people can’t do it. People can come in any time to try it. It’s $18. If you finish it we’ll give you a $20 gift card that you can use any time, even on the day of your visit.
19. Tequila is in your tagline - what role does it play at Papi Chulo’s?
We have close to 60 different tequilas that range from $6 to $60. If you’re a connoisseur or you just want a shot of tequila we’ll have something for you. People are exploring craft spirits and we have a lot of people who come here to taste different types of tequilas. We’ve seen that growing trend with whiskey as well so we also have a huge range of whiskeys that people can try out.
In addition to the straight spirits, we also sell a lot of Margaritas. A LOT of Margaritas. We hand craft all of our Margaritas, as well as our tequila themed cocktails. We have hand crafted vodka and whiskey based cocktails too, but our main focus is our tequila drinks.
20. What’s your role at Papi Chulo’s?
I’m an owner, a manager, and am responsible for the overall restaurant operation.
21. We hear that you’ve hired a new General Manager...
Yes, I’m excited to announce that Sam Sarkese has joined us. Sam has over 19 years of experience in restaurant management. One of Sam's first priorities is to oversee and upgrade our customer service operations.
22. How will people experience the changes in customer service that Sam will be working on?
In many ways. For starters, Sam will be an active presence on the floor to make sure things run smoothly and we don’t encounter bottlenecks or lapses in our service delivery. That starts with every guest being greeted promptly when they arrive. When people are seated we’ll make sure their tables are cleared and ready for them. Then we’ll make sure we take care of them while they’re enjoying their meal. We have great, scratch-made food and I want our service to be equal to the food we’re putting out. With Sam joining us I’m confident that will be the case.
23. Anything else?
I’d like to finish by saying that I love this city and its people. That’s why I created Papi Chulo’s. It’s a fun place and I want people to come here to enjoy themselves.