Remember the ancient time of 2016? It's when I bought my "I'm With Her" bumper sticker from the Hillary Clinton online shop, no one had ever used the term LoSo, and Papi Queso was the most dominant food truck in the crowded Charlotte food truck scene.
But time makes fools of us all. There's still only one President Clinton, LoSo is actually kind of catchy, and a combination of local taxation, Food Truck Friday relocations, and a dumpling wizard from a small Chinese village have chipped away at the gourmet melt truck's ubiquity in the Charlotte food scene.
If you'd told me three years ago that Papi Queso would be opening a brick and mortar store, I'd flip. If you told me they'd be opening one in the single most hyped mixed use space in the last five years, Optimist Hall, I'd make that flip a double. If you told me that would all happen and I just kind of wouldn't care, I wouldn't believe you.
That's exactly what happened.
The hype for Papi's brick and mortar lasted for only a few days, just long enough for Dumpling Lady to announce her own brick and mortar in the space. Dumpling Lady already beat Papi in street fights all over Charlotte's food truck scene, so if I was consulting at the grilled cheese/melt eatery, I'd make sure they came right out of the box with their best moves and some new surprises.
They did neither. Papi Queso's debut in Optimist Hall is passable, but reminds us why we fell out of love with the quirky food truck in the first place. Bland, complacent, and well worn, these cats are going to get fucking slaughtered when Velvet Taco shows up in December.
The space is uninspired. I mean, I know they only had like 13 feet to work with or whatever, but they had plenty of time to think intentionally about what to do with that space. A lone neon circa-2006 Free Williamsburg hipster mustache dripping with what I hope is cheese is the only nod and wink to a time when this brand felt youthful and energetic.
Otherwise, their corner of he food hall appears to have all the forethought and personality of a South Park office cubicle, which I suppose is Papi's target demo now.
Papi is only serving the classics right now. Buffalo Chicken and a Burger Melt appear to be on the way.
I grabbed my two old faves: the Pig Mac and the Mushroom Gruyere. After a 15-20 minute wait(!) I finally got my melts. No sides. Total cost was $21.
Now, if I wanted to wait 20 minutes for food, I'd go somewhere with table cloths, not a public gravel lot with cheap benches. But on the first truly chilly day of the year, it didn't get me down too much I was hyped for some fucking Papi Queso.
In a way, it reminded me of food truck Friday: long wait, anticipation builds, you come close to giving up hope, and then you finally get your dummy thicc pork mac and cheese melt to make it all better.
The best part of any Papi Queso sandwich is the bread, and I wasn't unsatisfied. The texture of the grilling and the salt crystals were right where they should be, but my Pig Mac failed to strike the delicate pork-to-cheese ratio. It actually made me struggle to remember a time when it did get the ratio perfect. This one was mostly fine, but in the bottom tier of Pig Macs I've eaten.
The Mushroom Gruyere didn't fair as well. I think the mushrooms were undercooked, and the seasonings were a bit off. I also don't feel like I got $9 worth of ingredients. I'll rarely complain about cost, but when there's not much food, not much atmosphere, and not much flavor, I do tend to wonder where all my money is going.
Biting into a Papi Queso melt used to be a multifaceted experience. The salt hits your taste buds first, followed by the buttery bread, then onto the warmth of the melted cheese and the various flavors of the seasonings. Each of their dishes was like a punk rock concept album with multiple movements, feeling almost too rhythmic to be improvised.
But this? It's just a grilled cheese. If you kinda like grilled cheese, you'll kinda like Papi Queso.
On the first truly autumnal day of the season, you'll likely find some satisfaction in Papi's melts should you venture to their corner of Optimist Hall. Pair it with the tomato soup and I imagine it's hard to go wrong. It'll be totally adequate.
Just don't expect the flavor, quirk, or indelible melty experience you got used to back in the day. It seems long gone.