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Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria (Fenwick)

/ Updated on February 16, 2015
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If you go to Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria in Fenwick Island expecting a typical Mexican restaurant, you will be surprised. But I don’t think you will be disappointed. I love Tex-Mex burritos, chili, enchiladas and tacos as much as the next guy (especially with a frozen margarita), but Papa Grande’s is not your typical TexMex joint. It’s a step up. The late Matt Haley and Corporate Chef Doug Ruley spent a lot of time in the Southwest and Mexico looking for unusual recipes at street carts, food vendors and tiny carryouts with their own way of doing things. Then, working with chefs from the Texas Culinary Institute of America, they adapted these traditional dishes to the needs and volume of a busy restaurant.

In fact, the concept has been so popular that they have duplicated it in downtown Rehoboth Beach at Papa Grande’s Rehoboth at the corner of Second St. and Wilmington Ave. — with a few specific surprises.

At the Fenwick Papa Grande’s the menu is divided into 7 sections: entradas (appetizers), sopa & ensaladas (soup/salads), tacos, especiales de la casa (signature dishes), sides, postres (dessert) and of course, specialty drinks.

You could make a meal out of the entradas. One of the first things to arrive at our table was a warm, colorful dish of Padron Peppers, kicked up only with sea salt and oil. Only mildly hot, they were simply perfect in all ways. On one of our earlier visits, we got the Chicharones with chili powder. My mother was born in the Southwest and I grew up on these things (they are about 99.9% air). Papa Grande’s version leaves a little more of the meat attached to the skin, making the puffy, finished product slightly firmer and unctuously savory. They were delicious — and they’ll ruin you for those little bags of “pork rinds” hanging on the racks at WaWa.

One of the stars of the appetizer show is the Seafood Ceviche. A chopped mix of scallops, shrimp and octopus is stirred with pico de gallo and avocado. The acidity of the citrus and fresh kick of cilantro is wonderful against the fish. We ordered it again on a subsequent visit.

The Chorizo Fundido was also excellent with the highly spiced Mexican sausage playing counterpoint to the gentle creaminess of what I suspect was Queso Blanco (a variety of Mexican melting cheese sometimes mistakenly referred to as queso fresco). It’s refreshing to finally encounter an aggressively spiced, coarse-ground chorizo rather than that wimpy stuff you get in some restaurants that are afraid to offend the delicate palates of the outraged and entitled. (Just sayin’…)

Another must-get from the starters side is the Tuna Tostadas. The sushi-grade Ahi melted softly in the mouth, sparkling with poblano, cilantro and lime. It could have qualified as a ceviche on a tortilla.

On our most recent visit, we started with the jicama sticks and the guacamole. The creamy white root vegetable was nicely married to lime juice lightly seasoned with chili, salt and pepper. The perfect nosh to wash down with our Watermelon Margaritas. The guacamole is firmer and chunkier than what you might be used to. It is also more brightly spiced — but not so heavy-handed that it masks the avocado. It is addictive.

I’m a sucker for a taco. Fold up a Birkenstock in a tortilla, toss on a little pico, cheese and lettuce and I’ll give it a try — buckle, Velcro and all. So on our first visit, I had the special: A Crispy Soft Crab Taco. The lucky little crustacean’s claws reached tantalizingly out of the corn tortilla around which cilantro, pickled red onion, cabbage, radish slices and crema frolicked. At the risk of slipping into uncontrolled hyperbole (like THAT hasn’t happened already), this thing was beyond belief. Bracing tastes aside, the textural roller coaster of the cabbage and radishes against the crust on the slightly sweet crab and the acidic softness of the onions would definitely have qualified as a 5-ticket mouth ride at Six Flags Over Fenwick.

It’s probably no surprise that on subsequent visits I had the Al Pastor (“shepherd style,” stemming from Lebanese immigrants’ influence on Mexican food with their popular schwarma) Pork and Pineapple taco and the Scrapple taco (yup, you heard me. You’re in Delaware! Get with the program). Both were delightful, and surprisingly not too filling. I was at work, you see, so I needed all the room I could get.

On our most recent visit, a nibbling companion ordered his #1 go-to dish for any place that calls itself authentic Mexican: The Chicken Mole. Many places either (1) use a pre-prepared sauce or something thrown together because the gringos won’t know the difference, or (2) won’t even attempt it because of the number of ingredients and the delicate balance they must achieve. Matt Haley’s mole sauce was obviously house-made (too deeply savory to be out of a bottle) and was delicious. None of the key ingredients (peanuts -or peanut butter- and chocolate) stood out in any way. But they were all there. It was a taste unto itself and was quite good.

On our last visit, one member of our party ordered the Chicken & Chorizo Enchiladas. I already told you about the chorizo, and the veggie rice played nicely with a fairly mild red sauce and lime. It was a tug-of-war when the server tried to wrest the spotless plate from his trembling hands.

Last but not least, we ordered the Jumbo Shrimp Rice Bowl on two of our visits. Even for the $23 tariff (as of this writing), the shrimp were overflowing the plate, and the rice, beans and zucchini were perfectly matched to the spices on the shrimp.

Though I must remain true to my downtown Rehoboth friend Yolanda’s delicious Tres Leches cake, I have to say that Papa Grande’s was … almost … as good. It didn’t have the distinct milky flavor for which we yearn on Wilmington Avenue, but then the dear Yolanda refuses to jump through the hoops of making authentic, homemade mole sauce. And I certainly don’t blame her. Each does what they do best.

The unusual spices used in so many of the preparations and sauces are generally unavailable, especially down here in the woods, but the late Matt Haley (who was a great supporter of LaEsperanza and Delaware’s Hispanic community in general) directed that the restaurant purchase many of the otherwise unavailable spices from tiny ethnic markets located in the Hispanic enclaves of western burgs such as Georgetown.

Papa Grande’s is across the parking lot from Haley’s wildly popular Catch 54, back with a vengeance after the fire of 2011. Both restaurants are on the water, and both offer outdoor dining on decks or, in the case of Papa Grande’s, a huge wraparound deck.

A suggestion: If it is a busy, in-season evening, after you turn in from Rt. 54 don’t even bother driving down the driveway toward the two buildings. Park in the open lot areas at the west end of the driveway. The walk will do you good, and you won’t have to negotiate a death-defying U-turn to park where I suggested you park to begin with. One fun feature in the upstairs room is the Mexican surfing videos that are projected onto the stark white barnwood wall opposite the huge opening that faces the bay. You can see them at night as you drive west over the Rt. 54 bridge. It’s like a drive-in movie, but without the popcorn and making out.

Take a look at Papa Grande’s food menu here, and always call in the off-season to check their hours (302) 436-7272 (spells “papa,” of course). By the way, the restaurant donates a percentage of profits to Haley’s own Global Delaware Fund that creates scholarship programs for deserving Hispanic kids.

Driving south from Rehoboth, turn right at Rt. 54 as you leave Fenwick Island (the Mason-Dixon Line) and you will see the teal, barn-like structure as you traverse the low bridge over the wetlands. (L., D., Bar) Price range: Moderate.

RehobothFoodie.com notes the sad passing of chef, award-winning restaurateur and SoDelConcepts founder Matt Haley, who passed away on August 19th, 2014 from injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash while on a humanitarian trip in the mountains of India. Matt will be sorely missed by many, many people.

Off-season Specials & Hours

Specials & Moods change quickly. Always call a restaurant first.

pp = per person.
BOGO = buy one, get one.
Bloody = bloody mary.
domestics = American-made beers (e.g., Bud).
imports = foreign beers (e.g., Heineken).
Rails = non call-brand alcohol.
Prix Fixe = one set price.
Mains = entrees.
Margs = margaritas.
Chix = chicken.
AYCE = all you can eat.
Lite = Miller Lite
drafts = draught beer.
Early Birds = arrive before a certain time.
Apps = Appetizers.
bottles = beer in a bottle.
à la carte = order off the menu (no prix fixe).
crafts = micro/artisanal brews (e.g., Old Leghumper Lager)

38927 Madison Ave.
Fenwick Island
(adjacent to
Catch 54)
302-436-7272

Off-season specials for 2016-2017 up and running!

Sunday
Open 11:30 - 9 for lunch and dinner
Sunday Supper! $19 for 3 courses!
Monday
Open 4-9
$5 margs and 1/2 price apps!
Tuesday
Open 4-9
All tacos half price!

Wednesday
Open 4-9
Half-price wine bottles!
Thursday
Open 4-9
25% off entire check, excluding happy hour specials
Friday
Open 4-10
Fajita night!
Saturday
Open 11:30 - 10 for lunch and dinner
The Rehoboth Foodie

About the Author

"My goal is to promote Rehoboth Beach dining while remaining honest and impartial. I don’t gush unless a place deserves it, and I don’t pull punches, either. With so many good places to eat around here, it just doesn’t make sense to waste the calories — or the money — on anything less." View all articles written by The Rehoboth Foodie

Add Your Comment
  1. Amanda says:

    My boyfriend and I went today for our first time. Cool atmosphere, service was terrible. We were never greeted upstairs at the bar upon arrival. Very cute blonde and brunette tenders with the American flag headbands. We were not acknowledged by eitherfor about 5 minutes. The bar was not crowded. The blonde eventually handed menus to us again without any greeting. After ordering drinks and food we asked for a side of jalapeños, which was never delivered. Their backs were turned to us the majority of the time. Although the food was great, we will not be back due to the service. No one asked how our drinks or food was. It’s infortunate to go out looking to have an enjoyable experience.. we left early.

  2. Liz says:

    Are you kidding about [Fenwick] Papa G’s? I’ve been there twice and the food is awful with no sense of presentation. The staff and manager are rude and make no accommodations for you. Many who live in the Fenwick area agree!

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