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Mexican-inspired cantina opens in Castro

by Sari Staver

Rick Hamer, left, and Joan Simon celebrate the opening of Hamer's Papi Rico with a toast. Photo: Sari Staver
Rick Hamer, left, and Joan Simon celebrate the opening of Hamer's Papi Rico with a toast. Photo: Sari Staver  

The co-owner of Papi Rico hopes to bring dating back to the Castro.

As a single gay man living in San Francisco, Rick Hamer remembers a time when dating often began in a bar.

"You know, a place where people can actually meet and have a conversation," said Hamer, the restaurateur who opened Finn Town in 2016.

Hamer, 56, and business partner William Vastardis, 62, hope their new cantina, Papi Rico, at 544 Castro Street, will be just such a place.

"We wanted to bring fun and camaraderie back to the neighborhood," said Hamer, who came up with the concept after Finn Town, at 2251 Market Street, opened to rave reviews.

After months of design, construction, and permit delays, Papi Rico opened its doors Monday, May 7. Cinco de Mayo weekend was a soft opening, Hamer said.

The owners, both of whom love Puerto Vallarta, have designed the space to resemble a beach resort with colorful murals and a spacious back patio (with heaters and a cover) that will "feel like summer year round," said Hamer.

"Working with the city on permits was a nightmare, but we were determined to open for Cinco de Mayo," said Hamer, whose nickname "Papi Rico," is Latin American street slang for a good-looking, older man.

In an interview May 5 while there was a private party, Hamer and Vastardis arrived at the restaurant carrying dozens of pillows that will line the banquettes on the perimeter of a cozy lounge, which can also be booked for private events.

An employee arrived with the freshly printed menus, "where nothing is over $13," said Hamer.

Cocteles de la Casa (cocktails of the house) are the star of the show, said Hamer. Head mixologist R.M. Richards, a Finn Town bartender, has developed a list of cocktails inspired by Puerto Vallarta, focusing on tequila and mezcal-based drinks, he said.

Among the offerings are the Playas Conchas (tequila, lime, grapefruit bitters) and the Sayulita (sotol, pineapple, hibiscus), as well as frozen libations like Garza Blanca (rum and housemade horchata) and De Oro (seasonal fruit margarita). Each is $12. In addition, the menu offers a selection of shots ($8), Mexican beers ($4-5), wine ($8-$12), seasonal agua fresca $5, and jarritos ($4).

The food, said Hamer, is "finger-friendly," much like the bites sold from beachside stands in Puerto Vallarta.

The antojitos (appetizers) include homemade chips and guacamole ($10), ceviche ($12), cheese empanadas ($3) and crispy fish tacos ($11).

The main courses include six different protein options - steak, chicken, carnitas, fish, veggie, and pork - each available as a taco, tostada, or quesadilla ($5-$7).

Churros with chocolate and crème anglaise ($9) are on the dessert menu.

Outside of Puerto Vallarta, "a huge destination for LGBT travelers," Papi Rico is "as authentic as it gets," said Hamer. "We wanted to offer the neighborhood something that was fun, easygoing, and geared to the gay community."

He described the cantina as "fast casual" - customers order at the front counter and have their food delivered to their table.

Hamer wouldn't be specific but said he intends to roll out "special events unique to the neighborhood" in the coming weeks. The key to the events, he said, is to bring back "dating and conversation."

Other aspects of the new spot give a nod to the current obsession with selfies on Instagram and Snapchat, said Hamer. The murals are "a perfect backdrop," he said.

Castro bars "haven't changed in decades," said Vastardis, a retired financial services executive who also owns a bar in Palm Springs. "They're all dark. We wanted something different."

Finn Town regulars will recognize some of the Papi Rico staff from the Market Street restaurant. Vastardis will be at the cantina most evenings, while Hamer will split his time between the two spots.

Once things are going smoothly, the Castro entrepreneurs already have plans for a third food-related business.

"We'll have an announcement soon," said Hamer.

For more information, visit http://www.papiricosf.com.

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