Papi Loco Taco Bar and Margaritas
ARTICLE BY VANELIS RIVERA AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
“We’re going south of the border next door,” said Tommy Stewart to Emily Elizabeth Ellis, now general manager of one of Monroe’s newest and most vibrant eateries, Papi Loco Taco Bar & Margaritas. Stewart, already the owner of Five19 Tap House & Tapas and Brass Monkey Pub & Patio has expanded his Desiard Street food empire with a tasty take on traditional Mexican street tacos and a slew of specialty cocktails, including, if you haven’t guessed already, an abundance of margaritas for your choosing. Between the seven flatscreen televisions playing upbeat Latin music videos and the trendy neon lights peeking out from the shelves of the bar area, going loco has never tasted so good!
Ellis began working for Stewart four years ago, starting out as a cook at Brass Monkey. Her multifaceted experience working in other restaurants allowed her to take the reins quickly there. “I’ve always been like the little butterfly,” she laughs, “that goes from conversation to conversation.” So, on slow nights she would peek her head from the kitchen area and begin to interact with customers, which felt more like her calling. It wasn’t long before she received a position up front, which transferred to Stewart’s second restaurant (Five19), which he opened close to the pandemic hitting. Ellis further proved her moxie when she kept working throughout the week in order to assist in expediting curb-side orders. “I take a lot of pride in what I do, and the product that I produce,” says Ellis. By the time Stewart revealed his plans for Papi Loco, Ellis was ready to help flesh out his ideas.
The first task on their agenda was constructing the menu. Stewart took charge of this delicious and gratifying endeavor, while Ellis had the arduous task any taco enthusiast would perform free of charge, that of taco taster. Stewart began by leaning into a few traditional combinations like the Tinga Tu Madre (a play on a popular Spanish slang saying) which incorporates shredded chicken with caramelized onions smothered in a roasted garlic and chipotle adobo sauce and topped with queso fresco (a tangy white cheese). Customers may also be familiar with the Carne Asada taco (marinated skirt steak topped with fresh cilantro and onions), as well as the Fish Tacos (grilled and flaky fish, crisp cabbage, fresh avocado smear, mango and pineapple pico, drizzled with their house-made spicy citrus sauce). While these recognizable flavors are sure to appease most palates, Stewart also allowed his creative juices to flow by exploring more playful pairings. The Caribbean Jerk taco explores the flavors of the islands by combining a grilled chicken breast coated in authentic jerk marinade, cilantro and lime rice, and topped with fresh pineapple mango pico. One of Ellis’ favorites is the Baja Shrimp: fried shrimp, crisp cabbage, pickled red onions, and jalapenos, topped with queso fresco, cilantro, and citrus sauce. This intricate mix pays homage to the Baja Fish Tacos, which originated in Baja California, Mexico, and works sumptuously with Papi Loco’s homemade corn tortillas, a source of pride for the establishment. “They’re made every day, like twice a day,” says Ellis, who warns customers that fresh corn tortillas tend to fall apart more readily than that which is store-bought, “but that’s how you know it’s authentic.”
“We make our own pretty much everything,” beams Ellis. New to the menu is a Mexican-inspired appetizer–Queso Dip and Chips. This melted cheese delight may be simple, but it will be very remiss of you not to add it to your order. “You wouldn’t think for something that has such a simple menu to be so time-consuming and so much work and effort,” says Ellis about the carefully curated menu, adding, “There’s a lot of love that goes into everything.” That’s the Papi Loco experience! One of her favorite sauces appears in the Carnitas Mojo taco (avocado smear and tender, juicy shredded pork tossed in their citrus mojo sauce). Ellis audibly sighs then says, “I love the mojo sauce. It’s sweet. It’s got orange juice in it and avocado oil. It’s really sumptuous.” Clearly, the simplicity and richness of flavors punches through in Papi Loco tacos.
With vast experience behind the bar and as a self-proclaimed “tequila girl,” Ellis had complete autonomy over beverage selections and creating the drink menu. “Tequila tasting is always the best,” she laughs. Each distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant on Papi Loco’s eclectic bar shelves has been hand-selected (and tasted) by Ellis. Among the familiar labels like Jose Cuervo and 1800 Tequila stand a few curious brands. “I definitely love the Batanga. That’s super delicious,” she says, following with, “But, I don’t personally like mixing with my tequila.” That’s to say, Ellis enjoys tasting the earthy smoothness of an aged tequila, and for those moments she turns to Maestro Dobel’s reposado. That particular brand uses a white birch cast instead of the common whiskey casks, so it does not have the usual amber color. Even more powerful are the two mezcals Ellis selected. Mezcal, made from roasted agaves, has a smoky taste that is quite foreign to most tequila drinkers. For this reason, when Ellis uses mezcal in margaritas she grills some lemon and lime, caramelizing the citrus which effectively complements the strong taste of the mezcal.
Regardless of the tequila of your choice, Papi Loco margaritas are a production all their own. The Papi Loco team uses fresh juice for their sweet and sour mix alongside housemade simple syrup, creating a much more refreshing blend. Going by the name “Loco Ritas,” there are currently 13 flavors to choose from ranging from the classics (traditional lime, mango, and strawberry) to the more extrinsic (wildberry pomegranate, banana, sriracha mango, and spicy jalapeño). “Jalapeño margarita; I had to fight Tommy to put that on,” she says with a smirk. Either way, the Loco Ritas are topped to the brim, adorned with a sprinkle of Tajin seasoning, a slice of lime, and a Mini Poti Rico, a tamarind-flavored candy stick with chili meant to be used as a straw (and then eaten as a treat!). “I’m constantly tinkering with stuff,” reveals Ellis, who is just as enthused about their new specialty cocktails. On that menu, you’ll find some refreshing concoctions, like the Mexican Shandy (Corona, Jose Cuervo Traditional Gold, fresh sweet n’ sour, and mango puree), Ranch Water (1800 Silver, fresh lime juice, and Topo Chico), and Rico Punch (Malibu, mango puree, orange juice, and pineapple juice). “One sip and you’re livin’ la vida loca!”
Speaking of living on the wild side, the Papi Loco atmosphere is one that screams “fiesta!” Stewart was going for an explosion of colors reflective of the vibrancy of Latin culture. Burnt orange, lime green, and matte white walls easily keep one in high spirits, alongside the bright yellow and blue industrial-style bar stools. The Fuschia glow of the bar captivates and draws outsiders in. And, most impressively, two selfie-worthy sugar skulls, hand-painted by Stewart, pay homage to the spiritual elements of Mexican culture. More sugar skulls are placed on the cherry-red colored frame of the front windows, beautifully contrasting the multicolors of the papel picado (paper cut-out) streamers hanging from the ceiling. Latin melodies ring throughout, mixtures of reggaeton, cumbia, salsa, and merengue, further texturizing the dine-in experience. It’s impossible not to feel the burst of energy emanating from the coordinating elements of the space.
Ultimately, Papi Loco is about kicking back at the bar or any of the hip seating, indulging with a taco or two (or three), refreshing from the summer heat with a boozy mix, and letting your loco run free.
Papi Loco Taco Bar & Margaritas is located at 523 Desiard St, Monroe, LA 71201, and is open every day of the week between 4 PM to 11 PM. Visit them on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about weekly and seasonal specials.