In terms of frequency, it’s definitely a Top Three question, for this critic, anyway: “Do you have any favorite Mexican restaurants?”
“Define ‘favorite’ ” is a stock response, along with a passive-aggressive “Let me think for a moment,” because the Twin Cities metro area has so few Mexican restaurants that land on my radar.
Then Pajarito came along late last year, and changed the dynamic. The restaurant, a partnership between chefs Stephan Hesse and Tyge Nelson, scrupulously avoids the lazy Tex-Mex clichés that bog down so many other, lesser Minnesota Mexican restaurants. Instead, it’s all about clean, intelligent, clearheaded cooking, made all the more impressive by middle-of-the-road prices.
The restaurant’s olfactory salutation is a doozy: the never-tiresome scent of burning oak in the kitchen’s hardworking grill. Hesse and Nelson skillfully use it to infuse smoky flavor into items up and down their menu.
Not content to stick with a standard house salsa, Hesse and Nelson offer a half-dozen, each expertly exploiting different chiles as they ascend heat levels, moving quickly from “lively” to “incendiary.” Most also call upon that wood-burning grill to insert flavor-enchancing char to tomatoes, onions and other building blocks.
At Pajarito, every day is Taco Tuesday. The kitchen’s six iterations all embody the Pajarito difference. No throwaway cooking here; each component is given a chef’s scrutiny and finesse. Nothing is taken for granted, and the results are highly appealing.
For starters, the corn tortillas are made on the premises. They’re rolled — and grilled — to order, a just-made freshness that’s a revelation in measures of taste and texture. It’s just one of many efforts that Nelson and Hesse use to announce that they take a highly serious approach to tacos.
But the chefs also don’t forget that tacos are rooted in fun. The most amusing outlier is the smelt taco, a Midwestern twist on the usual mahi-mahi. The method is simple, and the results are delicious. The heads are removed and the silvery fish are dipped in a Dos Equis batter and lightly fried. Crunchy purple cabbage and a bright, quietly acidic lime aioli provide just-right finishing touches.
Pork is approached from two perspectives, and both are superb. The loin is rubbed in a traditional dried guajillo marinade, then grilled relatively quickly over burning oak until the meat is simultaneously juicy and crisp. Tangy pickled onions and juicy pineapple step in to complete the customary al pastor equation.
Carnitas take an opposite approach, slowly but surely braising pork butt in lard and factoring a pair of sweetening agents: sweetened condensed milk and Coca-Cola. The fall-apart tender meat is eventually shredded, and when it’s ordered, the pork is crisped — and tantalizingly caramelized — on the flat-top grill, then stuffed into tortillas with creamy avocado and a pop of serrano chile.
Yes, there’s a reason why it’s the menu’s top-selling item. It also pairs beautifully with the runner-up, the bar’s habanero-cilantro margarita. That’s a nice symmetry, right?
Dark, earthy huitlacoche is another find, one that’s enriched with pungent epazote and not-shy serrano chiles. Oh, don’t miss the smoky chicken tinga taco, the flavorful thigh meat stewed with tomatoes, oregano, garlic and chipotle peppers, then cooled with queso fresco cheese.
All are $9 a pop, with two tacos per order. If that sounds a bit expensive for a pair of tacos, it is. Well, until quality and ingenuity are factored in. Then, it’s a steal. My one wish? A mix-and-match option. But that’s scrounging for a complaint.
More than tacos
The menu’s central section is the one that mostly loudly and proudly heralds the kitchen’s intentions to approach Mexican flavors from a refreshing new perspective.
The 11 small-plates options are full of (happy) surprises, and there’s enough variation to keep regulars happy, but not so many choices that diners become overwhelmed.
Delicate trout, carefully smoked, is the Grade A centerpiece for a stunner of a tostada. Sweet potatoes are given a robust char on that grill — the fire’s crackling heat unlocks their natural sugars — then topped with a sweet-hot salsa.
A garlicky, slightly lumpy guacamole sports a just-right acidic bite.
Gorgeous octopus, plucked from Spanish waters, is expertly braised, grilled and then finished with a rich pumpkin seed-poblano sauce.
The clock is ticking on the addictive fried Brussels sprouts, which are seasoned with a traditional lime-salt-chiles blend, then given the mayonnaise-and-cheese treatment usually reserved for roasted sweet corn.
They’ll be back in the fall when Brussels sprouts season returns. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what happens when sweet corn season arrives.
Prettiest is a knockout spin on ceviche, using the tart acid in pomelo to work its wonders on fatty opah. It’s as tasty as it is beautiful.
A quartet of larger — yet still more than reasonably priced — plates act as entrees, but they really fall into shareable platters territory.
An absurdly thick Compart Duroc pork chop, left with just enough fatty sizzle, more than impresses. But it’s the juicy, surprisingly tender beef (a rarely seen ball tip steak cut) that really stands out, shimmering in a vinegar-punched chimichurri sauce.
That, and the weekly fish special, which might be banana leaf-wrapped striped bass (from W. 7th Street neighbor Urban Organics) or, if you’re fortunate, halibut collar, the succulent fish marinated in habaneros, orange juice and olive oil and simply grilled. It’s big, it’s messy — bones and fins are retained — and it’s a ton of fun to eat. And so delicious.
A wallop of a waffle
Weekend brunch is a total delight, and that’s high praise coming from someone who plots his Saturday and Sunday schedules around this languid midday meal.
Along with a rerun of the lunch menu (which, in turn, is a truncated version of dinner), Hesse and Nelson get busy retrofitting a half-dozen brunch favorites by invoking stereotypical Mexican flavors in offbeat ways.
A tender cornmeal-sweet corn waffle, its golden good looks dotted with flecks of chopped jalapeño peppers, is buried under toothy black beans, a slow-burn sausage and bright pico de gallo, and it’s a brilliant way to greet the day.
Ditto the well-constructed mountain of huevos rancheros, a flurry of textures and colors starring plenty of that slow-cooked, slightly sweet shredded pork and a sunny side-up egg with a runny yolk.
Kudos to the pillowy scrambled eggs dotted with shards of sweet, succulent crab and topped with pretty coral-colored roe. With its cinnamon and chocolate accents, the French toast has a decided churros aura.
As always, the hefty portions not only suggest sharing, they very nearly demand it, and there isn’t a price on the menu that exceeds $11. Another plus: Barkeep Kara Smith contributes a handful of daytime-appropriate tequila and rum cocktails.
The room — formerly the home of Glockenspiel — occupies a portion of the handsome CSPS Hall, an 1887 beauty dedicated to Czech-Slovak cultures.
It’s a comfortably wide-open, loft-like space, with an animated bar up front and comfort-minded booths bringing up the rear. Nothing screams “Mexico,” and it doesn’t have to, because, like all sharply conceived restaurants, the food (and drink) does the talking.
Yes, Pajarito (it’s Spanish for “little bird”) is yet another example of how the local dining scene continues to propel itself onward and upward, a phenomenon that’s only bound to continue, because good restaurants can’t help but generate more good restaurants. Just look at Nelson’s and Hesse’s back stories.
Both are acolytes of alpha chef Tim McKee. Nelson’s résumé includes stints at McKee’s former La Belle Vie and Solera, while Hesse’s McKee connection is through Masu Sushi & Robata. The McKee thread most recently continued through his former role as culinary director of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, when Nelson and Hesse were running two of the company’s properties in Uptown Minneapolis: Nelson at Chino Latino, Hesse at Libertine.
“We’d get together and take a walk around the neighborhood, and talk, and share ideas,” said Nelson, a ritual that eventually led to Pajarito.
Here’s a suggestion to chefs looking to open their own place: Buddy up, and start strolling, and chatting. Twin Cities diners are counting on you.
Info: 605 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-340-9545, pajaritostp.com.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sun. No reservations.
Service: Engaging, knowledgeable and casual.
Sound level: Conversation-challenging when full.
Price ranges: Tacos $9, small plates $8-$13, entrees $16-$22, side dishes $6. Brunch entrees $10-$11.
Recommended dishes: Tacos, pork chop, octopus, trout tostada, aguachile, Brussels sprouts, weekly fish preparation, scrambled eggs with crab, waffle with black beans, huevos rancheros.
Beverage program: Bar manager Kara Smith follows the kitchen’s example and crafts vivacious, expectation-exceeding cocktails ($8-$11). A long (30-plus) tequila roster. Drinkable (and price-conscious) beer and wine options.
Special menus: Vegetarians aren’t ignored but won’t be overwhelmed, either.