Everything Chef Richard Papier learned about Mexican cuisine came first from someone's abuelita.
Chef Richard Papier didn’t get any breathing room when Araña opened in August. When the Mexican restaurant started serving dinner on Magazine Street, it did so in the space formerly occupied by Nacho Mama’s among a row of similarly budget-friendly restaurants. He and owner Tarek Tay, who also owns Byblos and Salu Bistro among others, didn’t plan to swap Mexican for Mexican in the space, but that was Papier’s specialty so it simply worked out. The result though, was that Araña has had good crowds since day one. Good for business; not so good for making the tweaks that can only happen after the doors are open.
Part of the challenge for Papier early on was educating his staff’s taste buds so that they recognized what a dish needed. “It’s hard to explain to someone what it is to taste,” he says. “Trying to explain balance is like trying to explain to someone who can’t see what the color blue is.” When Araña opened, he thought one salsa still needed a little garlic, and the hickory smoke in the chicken mole was a little strong.
Mexican cuisine is Papier’s specialty, but not because he was born to it. He was born and raised in New Orleans and his family came from Russia on his dad’s side and Scandanavia on his mom’s. He had worked at Emeril’s and Herbsaint before he started working with Chef Guillermo Peters at Taqueros. Papier put in some time working the front of the house at O’Henry’s to help his uncle out, but he realized that wasn’t for him. When Peters offered him a position and talked about plans to one day go for a more upscale operation, Papier joined him.
Much of what he knows came from working with Peters at Taqueros and later at Taqueros Y Coyoacan on St. Charles Avenue. At Taqueros, a small taqueria in Kenner, Peters found a cult following by serving inexpensive tacos and more ambitious dishes in a humble space in a strip mall. The two would often share a bottle of wine when service was done, with Papier picking Peters’ mind about the essence of Mexican food including its presentation. He now aspires to cook as grandmothers cooked.
“It’s rustic,” Papier says. “Let’s think rustic. Let’s think Yucatan.”
Papier’s cuisine at Araña doesn’t focus on one region in Mexico, though. He furthered his education after Hurricane Katrina when, while in forced exile, he worked at Green Valley Grill, a Mexican restaurant in Greensboro, South Carolina. Its staff came from all parts of Mexico, and he learned from them and their families as well.
“There were all these great taquerias, especially where I was at in Greensboro,” he says. “You pull into a gas station and in the back corner and there’s this amazing butcher shop where a guy’s breaking down a whole hog. Grandma’s sitting there making hand-pressed tortillas, and workers were coming buy to get these big boxes of food.”
Papier had some ideas in mind from the start with Araña. He knew he wanted to do a Baha fried fish taco and to offer pibil dishes—slow-cooked meats wrapped in banana leaf packets. He also planned to prepare the pork for the tacos al pastor on a vertical spit the way gyro meat is cooked instead of on a grill.
“The dynamics of the spit are a study unto itself,” he says. “You’ve got to baby it, and if you don’t pay attention to it, you can destroy it. We’re at a point now where we know the ins and outs of it. I can’t believe how much we’ve got accomplished in such a short a time.”
Araña addresses a restaurant niche that went from underserved to crowded within months. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans diners had few options that weren’t variations on the sort of Tex-Mex food sold in chains. Post-Katrina recovery temporarily brought a number of taco trucks to New Orleans, but they were eventually paperworked to the culinary margins. This summer Araña and Del Fuego opened on Magazine Street, and John Besh and Aaron Sánchez’s Johnny Sánchez opened last weekend on Poydras.
These restaurants all fly in the face of the sort of food Americans have been conditioned to think of as Mexican food, Papier says.
“They want Taco Bell. They want fajitas and things like that.”
Araña nods to those sensibilities at the request of Tay. The menu includes a ground beef, tomato and lettuce taco and a nacho dish, albeit a more distinctive version with Yucatan chills, queso fresco and cojita cheese replacing jalepenos and cheddar or pepper jack cheese. In general though, Papier believes that eating at Araña will teach people how to get the most out of its menu. He is already starting to see it happen with the restaurant’s queso fundido.
“This is not one of those Velveeta dips with meat in it,” he says. Instead, it comes on a plate with chorizo inside a folded slice of Oaxacan cheese, and it’s cut and smeared on pieces of a tortilla, not scooped with chips. “I love it when I see people come and order the lamb chops or the chicken mole or they order the pork and they ask for extra tortillas. They want to use the tortillas to sop the sauce up or put the meat inside the tortilla and eat it like that. When I see those kinds of people, it makes me really happy because they get it.”