Somewhere along the line, it seems like it became easier to sell tacos than sandwiches. A margarita sounded better than a glass of wine, and a basket of chips and salsa easily supplanted a salad for an appealing starter. The liberated fun of Mexican food, the instant-party nature of it, almost makes it a no- brainer if you’re looking to gather crowds at a new restaurant. Even better if you can do these things very well.
New restaurants open around here with head-spinning speed, so it now seems silly to refer to something as “highly anticipated.” However, Pajarito is one that rose to that incantation. Tyge Nelson and Stephan Hesse are two chefs who aren’t necessarily big household names, but could be and should be. With this new thing, they likely will be, but that detail is also almost beside the point.
You’ve eaten their cooking at Chino Latino and Libertine, but also La Belle Vie and Masu, and many of the spots where you can trace back to chef Tim McKee you can also trace these loyal, hardworking dudes.
Now trace them back to their own dream, and why not Mexican, because what do cooks and chefs like to eat and dream of more than the burny tang of chile, the rich depth of braised meats, the frizzled skin of deep-fried fish before they’re dropped into a tortilla? Nothing!
Their new Pajarito on St. Paul's West Seventh Street is a prominent, shining example of a legitimate trend that’s amping up around here, where Mexican cooking will meet familiar, bistro-style surrounds with good service, serious cocktails, and premium ingredients. I’m calling it the Mexican bistro, but if you’ve got a better name, let it rip.
At Pajarito, you could strip away the menu and serve almost anything out of the space, which has lots of rich wood accents, vintage birdcages hanging from the ceiling, exposed brick, and corrugated tin ceiling all uniting in the ubiquitous but handsome neighborhood bistro. Only a colorful Day of the Dead Catrina mural tips you off to what might be on the menu.
On that menu: a full compendium of classic tacos -- al pastor, tinga, barbacoa. o standards have been overlooked, like making sure the jukebox has a little Elvis, Prince, and the Beatles. But also, fried smelt as a nod to the Minnesota palate, plus a smattering of more entree-sized portions from the grill including chile-rubbed chicken, chimichurri beef, and a rotating fish selection. Bring in your dad for these if he's one of the rare individuals who doesn't happen to be an easy sell when it comes to tacos.
But the best way to use Pajarito is turning your attention to the broadly interesting “platillos” section, where everything from Guajillo-chile-slathered pork ribs to trout tostadas to ceviche-like aguachile with a rotating fish arrives in infinitely sharable little blue bowls.
They come out of the kitchen in an unpredictable smattering, so go to Pajarito with a group, or at least a friend, and order a bunch. Start drinking from the inventive list of cocktails, like a cilantro habanero Margarita, or a Michelada using a housemade base involving local favorite Crybaby Craig’s hot sauce. Then, let the instant party begin.
Do not overlook a big basket of the housemade chips: tender yet flaky-crisp, paired with your choices of housemade salsas, or all six if you like. This is among my favorite things on the menu.
The way to think of Pajarito is not whether or not it’s “authentically” Mexican (whatever that means anymore). It’s not. Instead, it’s a coming together of two bright culinary minds in a realization of a dream, bringing with them all they’ve gleaned in serious careers, now exhaling a little.
You can taste it in the Brussels sprouts, “eltote style,” addictive little heavily caramelized cabbages slathered in mayo and cheese until they’re addictive as chips and dip. Or the straightforward guacamole that’s not a “reinvented” or “elevated” anything, but mashed avocado that lets you drink your beer and dip your chips and think about the game or your date.
Considering the West Seventh neighborhood, one of the oldest, most reliably “St. Paul” communities we have, this seems like a good play. Pajarito is familiar yet new, unflashy enough to stand the test of time, and embracing of the nonpartisan lovability of chile, lime, pork ribs, and tequila. Party on.
605 W. Seventh St., St. Paul