Papi's Taqueria opened at the end of August on Isle of Palms, and by any measure, it should've been a big deal.
Instead, it opened with nary a press announcement.
The chef and partner is Atlanta-based Rusty Hamlin, a second-place finisher on the reality show "Food Network Star," the TV series most famous for launching Guy Fieri's career.
While no Fieri, Hamlin is a celebrity in a different sense, as part of country singer Zac Brown's Southern Ground lifestyle brand. In his role as executive chef, Hamlin has organized events like VIP Eat and Greets during the band's tour schedule along with the Southern Ground Music Festival, which puts local chefs and farmers together to feed fans onstage while a music festival happens in their midst. The event has come to Daniel Island's Volvo Stadium several times and was supposed to happen last May, but was canceled due to Brown's recording schedule.
Hamlin is currently working on Zac Brown's Social Club in the Atlanta Hawks' new State Farm Arena. The 16,000-square-foot venue is a full-service Southern restaurant for which Hamlin has designed the menu and trained the kitchen. "The food is awesome," he promises. "I'm here now tidying up before we open."
Before that undertaking, however, he was here in Charleston, spending time on his passion project, Papi's Taqueria, which he opened at the end of August with partner Wyatt Durrette, the songwriter and former bar manager who introduced him to Brown back in 2001.
Durrette recently moved to IOP full time after a lifetime of vacationing there, and approached Hamlin with an opportunity to open a restaurant on the beach town's main drag. They partnered with Bret Jones, owner of The Dinghy, and Eric Evaul, a former Home Team BBQ manager who now serves as the general manager of Papi's.
"They said, 'See that souvenir shop over there? C'mon let’s do this,'" says Hamlin. "We started almost a year ago on the structure. It was so small I couldn’t even walk through because things would fall off the racks."
Now, it's been transformed into a cute little taco joint with a rooftop bar that looks out at the ocean.
Owner of nearby Code del Pesce Ken Vedrinski, who participated in the Southern Ground Festival with Hamlin, says he's happy to have Papi's.
"Everything is done really well, along the lines of Minero," he says, "with these cool little twists on the food." And for Vedrinksi, any place that is better than the average beach restaurant is a good thing for IOP.
Hamlin says Papi's has been a dream for a long time mainly because he loves Southwestern flavors and has spent a lot of time researching the cuisine.
"The story is that Papi was a world traveler, and he took all these flavors from around the world and washed up on IOP," says Hamlin. "And that's kind of who I am. I grew up in Baton Rouge and the New Orleans area, and it's all the influences I've had over the years touring that I'm bringing to a menu like Papi's."
Those influences show up in unexpected ways, like in the Bayou Hot Tamales, which take the basic form of tamales and add crawfish, andouille sausage and Louisiana-style red sauce.
"I was a little nervous about doing this type of menu," he admits. "It's 100 percent chef-driven, nontraditional, and I hadn’t seen a taqueria quite like Papi’s."
The Seoul Searcher marries Korean fried chicken with housemade collard green kimchi while the Sucio Italian is basically a bizarre mash-up that Hamlin concocted.
"It’s like a meatball sub on a taco with chorizo meatballs, roasted chili marinara, made with guajillo peppers, and chihuahua cheese, which is close to a mozzarella, and charred poblano peppers" he says. "It worked in my crazy mind and it's a huge seller, so people are liking it too."
They had hoped to open at the beginning of the summer beach season, but they ended up opening in late August and that works out just fine for Hamlin's purposes. "We're hyper focused on the locals," he says. "We know it'll be a cray-cray season on the beach, but we want to be there for the community year-round."
As the weather changes, Hamlin says to expect the menu to get winterized with fresh soups, enchiladas and mole sauce.
Papi's Taqueria is open daily from 4-10 p.m. at 1012 Ocean Blvd., Isle of Palms.