"If we get to Lake Arrowhead before you, we'll just head for the Mexican restaurant in Blue Jay and have a cerveza. Meet us there," said a friend.
I couldn't think of any Mexican restaurant in Blue Jay and told her so.
"It's just as you're heading into town. Maybe it's not Blue Jay--what's the name of that other place? Agua Fria? It's right next to the gas station."
As it turned out, we arrived first and waited for our friends to drive us to La Cantina de Papagayo. It was Friday night and the place was jammed, but we managed to grab a tiny table on the half-completed outdoor patio while we waited for a larger one in the dining room.
A basket of warm tortilla chips, some spicy salsa and a liter of Margaritas kept us very content until our table became available. Their chips are light and crispy, obviously fried in fresh vegetable shortening. They make the chunky salsa daily, and we discovered the consistency and flavor varies slightly not only from night to night but from dish to dish. All of it, however, has plenty of bite.
The Margaritas are nice and frothy and not too sweet. We overheard another customer telling his friends they were "the best around." We also tried the strawberry variation, which tasted like it had been made with fresh berries. They come flavored with peach, melon and coconut too.
Eight hot appetizers are available on the patio and in the tiny bar area. Nic's taquito bits are terrific--two flour tortillas rolled up with shredded beef, deep fried, then cut into bite size pieces, topped with ranchera sauce and cheese and garnished with sour cream.
If you prefer a little less sauce, try the nachos supremas. Tortilla chips are topped with Jack and Cheddar cheeses, ground beef, tomatoes, onions, black olives, green chiles and dabs of guacamole and sour cream.
The pizza Mexicana is similar but uses one large crispy flour tortilla as the base and adds beans and enchilada sauce to the aforementioned toppings. Papagayo wings, a take-off on Buffalo chicken wings, was the spiciest of the appetizer selections we tried.
You could easily make a meal of the appetizers at Papagayo's, but there are also plenty of worthwhile entrees. The carnitas are served as a build-your-own burrito, with a choice of three flour or corn tortillas to wrap the lean shredded pork, refried beans, green salsa and salad of shredded lettuce, sliced black olives and chopped tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro.
Portions, in general, are generous, so it wasn't surprising the el gordo burrito lived up to its name. The large flour tortilla was bulging with chunk and ground beef, rice, cheese, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, black olives and verde sauce. It is only outdone by the el puerco grande, which is made with two large tortillas and billed as "a burrito that will stuff one, fill two or satisfy three."
There are also dessert burritos, filled with apple or peach filling, deep fried and topped with whipped cream. Our waitress suggested them over the sopaipillas "because they were lighter." When we showed obvious doubt, she brought the can of light whipped cream to our table to prove her point.
That's typical of the restaurant's service. Even when business is brisk, the service people are friendly and attentive.
The atmosphere is also warm and very casual. The menu says Papagayo is home of the wild parrot, so a couple portraits of the bird hang on the imitation walnut paneling that covers most of the walls and ceiling. Where it doesn't, there is fern wallpaper behind the black plastic upholstered booths. An assortment of wrought iron lamps provide lighting and plastic flowers add a note of color.
I had just been commenting that the carpet needed vacuuming when someone came past with one of those hand carpet sweepers. My friends just laughed. "This is a mountain kind of place. What do you expect?"
La Cantina de Papagayo, junction of Daley Canyon Road and State Highway 189, Agua Fria, (714) 337-9529. Open Sunday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. No reservations. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Parking on both sides of the highway. Entrees, $3.95 to $13.95.