In Brief

Pajarito in St. Paul

Pajarito, a newly opened Mexican restaurant in St. Paul, deftly balances street food flavors and sophisticated atmosphere.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

There has been much excitement over the newly opened Pajarito on St. Paul’s West 7th Street. And why not? The restaurant brings together pedigree (Tim McKee acolytes Tyge Nelson and Stephan Hesse) and a clearly defined concept (Mexican street food dressed up and ready to party).

Pajarito’s central challenge is to balance an almost universally appealing street food aesthetic (focused on stuff like small, flavor-packed tacos, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, melted cheese with a soul) with drinks, chic decor, and the necessity of maintaining healthy margins in a competitive industry. Your food should taste like the best $4 you ever spent on East Lake Street, but it should also be surrounded by impeccable decor, convincing cocktails, and … well, it should cost at least $8.

A few places around here have executed this formula well: Barrio may be the reigning champ, but there are some others (Jefe, Bar Luchador, certain incarnations of Chino Latino) that seem to get the balance right. Add Pajarito to the list. Straight out of the gate, it’s combining compelling flavors with an atmosphere and aesthetic that is skillfully designed to create repeat customers.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Our cocktails were properly executed and well-balanced. The Trouble With Tipples ($8, above right, featuring Plantations Dark Pineapple Rum, Trader Vic’s 151 Proof Rum, Bittercube Blackstrap Bitters, and more) reminded me of one of my all-time favorite cocktails: the Sea Foam, served at the sadly defunct Jolly Bob’s Jerk Joint in Madison. The concept in a nutshell: pineapple-meets-rum, effortlessly light and cheerful, but packing a hidden wallop.

You Boys Ever Been to Oaxaca? ($10, above left) was equally deft: a blend of mezcal, pineapple, lime, vanilla, and caramel flavors that could have been a nasty sugar bomb, but instead was a properly balanced tart-meets-sweet-meets-earthy package that resembled a dressed up, but still recognizable, old-school margarita.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

At the very center of the menu at Pajarito is the Queso Fundido ($10), and at the very center of “Queso Fundido,” in a language-bending way, is the word “fun.” This is no coincidence. It’s a dish that everyone who visits this restaurant should order, as it’s howlingly joyous — a one-two punch of rich, silken, melted Monterey Jack with roasted onion and green chorizo, and the kind of super fluffy, pillowy tortillas you rarely get outside of the Southwest.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We actually sacrificed one of our Fundido tortillas to repackage our Tacos al Pastor ($8 for two). There’s little to complain about vis-a-vis the fillings of these tacos (lots of heat from the thinly sliced jalapeños, nice depth of flavor in the meat, a non-excessive pineapple presence) but the thin, irritatingly chewy fried tortillas are a minus. They’re not really satisfyingly crispy, and they are difficult to chew, and it’s not clear how they’re meant to be an improvement on the street-food standard.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The restaurant’s “Elote style” Brussels Sprouts ($8) are the kind of thing you should serve to a Brussels sprouts skeptic. If this individual doesn’t like these beautifully charred, perfectly complemented sprouts, they’re hopeless (vis-a-vis sprouts, and probably vis-a-vis food in general.) The cotija cheese and crema filled out the sprouts’ roasty and vegetal flavors, and the whole dish clicked.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Similarly nice was the wood-charred Sweet Potato ($9) a blackened, honking thing that was tender and sweet, and offset by salt, cilantro, and char. As with so many well-conceived dishes, the diner can steer the ship and create the ideally balanced bite by navigating combinations of the exterior, the center, and the toppings, making the dish as fun to eat as it is tasty.

Service at Pajarito was attentive and cheerful during our visit, and the restaurant (crowded these days, and likely to stay that way) feels busy and fun amid the crush of guests. It’s loud but not deafening, and while we’d remove the distracting televisions from above the bar, there’s not much else we’d want to change about the warm and inviting environment.

Trendy Mexican on West 7th in St. Paul

605 West 7th St
St. Paul, MN 55102
Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
BAR: Full
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Not so much
NOISE LEVEL:  Amenable din
PARKING: Street parking

By James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.