San Antonio is strangely short on diners, those homey places that serve the assimilated staples of the American diet and are often beloved by their customers for a singular take on a standard — a Reuben with house-made sauerkraut or a Creole-style egg-salad sandwich. Breakfast tacos you can find on almost any corner; good luck getting a cowpoke. But the dining universe is ever-expanding: Mr. Tim’s recently brought steak, sunny-side-up eggs, and biscuits to Southtown, and now Papa Louie’s Diner has followed in those artery-unfriendly footsteps.
Papa Louie’s small, cute dining room is painted aqua and decorated with a couple-dozen small round mirrors, like a hip salon. The menu is contemporary mom-’n’-pop: chicken-fried steak, a half-dozen burgers, from bean (with Fritos!) to patty melt, and a selection of ambitious salads that claim some international influence. Most of the prices hover just under $7, and specials come with a drink, too. (Dinner entrées cost slightly more, but are still very reasonable if not technically cheap.)
We dropped in for lunch around 12:30 on a Monday. Two other tables were occupied, one by King William Association Past President Brad Shaw, another by a cozy couple. Hungry and a little chilly, I immediately fell for the hot-chocolate menu, which features variations such as pistachios and nutmeg, caramel, and toasted coconut at $2.25 apiece. I ordered the latter, and it arrived in a generous mug looking like a mini cake. Whipped cream topped with the promised coconut and chocolate sprinkles floated on a marshmallow island that was slowly melting in the truly hot, canela-seasoned chocolate. Order it, but save it for dessert — the rest of the meal was anticlimactic.
My dining companion insisted on trying the buffalo calamari, a great idea ruined by what must have been frozen squid. The calamari was chewy, the crisp coating quickly became mush in the buffalo sauce, and both the spicy ranch and blue cheese dressing were bland. Next time we’ll try the bacon-wrapped shrimp instead.
I’d heard good things about the chicken salad (there are at least three on the menu, including a “Chinese” version and one with pineapple chunks), so I decided to go lighter with my main course and ordered the tuna salad, whose description included the mouthwatering word “wasabi.” What came was nearly a solid pound of freshly made but plain tuna in mayonnaise dressing, served on a bed of fresh romaine with a few so-so tomato slices scattered around the plate’s rim. I made a lettuce wrap with a giant romaine leaf, but took most of it home figuring it would make a great sandwich with a few crunchy, zingy additions thrown in.
My companion meanwhile chowed most of his patty melt, which is served on rye with grilled red onions and Swiss cheese. It didn’t come medium-rare, as ordered, and like the tuna salad, there was nothing special about it — all those classic flavors should have added up to something special, but somehow didn’t. The thin and lightly breaded onion rings showed promise (just a little greasy), but the fries were doing their best to imitate frozen-from-a-bag.
Papa Louie’s, in short, has the basic ideas right, but the execution needs more care and invention. Serve fresh salsa with the chips or skip it altogether; cook the food as specified; deliver a table’s main courses at the same time — especially when the dining room’s not full. And please do stick around. I’ve been told the pancakes are great, and I bet they’re especially good with hot chocolate. — Elaine Wolff