Cocktails and Brussels Sprouts (I’m Serious!) at Pajarito in St. Paul
If you’ve never contemplated burning a restaurant down over Brussels sprouts, you haven’t had good enough Brussels sprouts.
Take, for instance, the elote-style sprouts at Pajarito. When chefs/co-owners Stephan Hesse and Tyge Nelson opened Pajarito, almost a year ago to the day, the idea was to create refined Mexican food in a laid-back atmosphere. They nailed the atmosphere; but, rather than tacos or enmolada taking center stage, the Brussels sprouts emerged as the must-have menu item.
If you were on the fence about Pajarito, you were probably told to go try the Brussels sprouts. If you were on the fence about Brussels sprouts, you were probably told to try them at Pajarito. They’re juicy and perfectly charred, but not soggy. I bite them and I’m taken back to the last really nice steak I had. Crema and cojita cheese offer a little extra zest, like when you’re hugging someone you secretly like and he or she kisses you on the neck.
I’m not exaggerating. They’re really this good. You can imagine, then, the reaction when these sprouts were taken off the menu for more seasonal fare.
“When we told people the sprouts and sweet potatoes were coming off, we thought customers were going to burn the building to the ground,” said Kara Smith, who heads up the bar program at Pajarito. “The reaction was equally as jubilant when we said they were coming back. People flooded to the restaurant just to have these two items. We still sell and amazing amount of both each day.”
The bar program at Pajarito is another monster entirely. Are you having a bad day today, by chance? She’s got one hell of a cure if you have.
The Basics: Pajarito (“Birdie” in Spanish) opened at the end of last year on 7th Street in St. Paul, in the space formerly occupied by The Glockenspiel (which closed in 2015). Hesse and Nelson are both in the famed Tim McKee Tree – Hesse having worked for McKee at Masu, then Libertine, and Nelson having worked for him at the Stillwater La Belle Vie. Hesse came over from Libertine to start this project, and brought Smith over to run the bar. You can find information about Pajarito on their website.
Let’s get the hard part out of the way first. My wife and I loved The Glockenspiel. We were gutted when it closed its doors closed for the last time. When I heard “a taco place” was opening in that location, yeah, I resented the idea. I’d met Hesse already at this point, and I was aware of his and Nelson’s backgrounds, but I was resentful at the whole thing because it wasn’t The Glockenspiel. I might have never stepped in there had I not been connected with Smith for a story I wrote back in March. It took her less than 15 minutes to make an admirer out of me and a regular at her bar.
After roughly an hour, she’d invented a drink for me and now customers come in and ask for it:
And that is a Frank Had a Bad Day at the Office. It’s not on the menu (yet), but ask Smith for one and she’ll take care of you.
It was scientifically engineered to booze-punch you right in the frown. While you’re taking your first sip, adjusting your force output to a level that won’t shatter your glass can be a delicate proposition depending on the day. After one sip, or maybe two, there’s nothing delicate about it. It’s sweet and smooth, like a nice rum, but with a medicinal back-end flavor that obliterates whatever bad taste your day had built up in your mouth. Did an end-of-meeting Q-and-A go 15 minutes again? Answer it with one of these.
When I’m not having a Bad Day, I’ll gravitate toward the habanero cilantro margarita. It’s tequila and dry curacao, with lime juice and house-made cilantro syrup. If the inclusion of the word “tequila” doesn’t flip on your spider senses, perhaps the habanero tincture floating at the top of your drink will. For those (like me) used to the fishbowl-sized slushy sugar bombs at Poncho Villa on Eat Street, or Guadalajara in Superior’s Mariner Mall, this margarita’s quaint apperance may come as a shock. Pajarito’s is cleaner, smoother, and warms your core nicely.
It’s the margarita you drink after you move out of the frat house … is what I would say if I didn’t still indulge in those fishbowls every once in a while.
Smith didn’t go through all this trouble thinking up clever cocktail names to put a crappy drink on the menu, and she doesn’t. There’s a drink called Turtlenecks and Gold Chains (So Disco you’ll think you’re on drugs!) with blanco tequila, mezcal, blue curacao, pineapple juice and lime juice. There’s Nilla Nilla Cream Pie (Dirty minds think alike!) with pineapple rum, banana liquor, banana milk, palm sugar, lime juice and Nilla Wafer cream. There’s a south-of-the-border spin on a Moscow Mule. A poloma, too. Pick something you think you’ll like. Smith and her team will make sure you like it.
The Pork Al Pastor tacos are a colorful melody of thick pork, sweet pineapple, pickled onions, jalapenos, and Ancho-Guajillo. You’ll get a good a zing from it; but, if you want more of one, they keep the house well-stocked with local hot sauce king Crybaby Craig’s. They’re the most beautiful tacos I’ve had set in front of me, possibly ever, and they taste the part.
Other tacos available include a pork carnitas with avocado serrano and onion; chicken tinga tacos, my choice when the Pork Al Pastor isn’t available; a roasted mushroom taco with tomatoes and goat cheese for the serial killer; and beef barbacoa tacos with cilantro and shallots.
You can’t call yourself a modern restaurant without a brunch menu. Pajarito’s got one, and I think your inner mouth-wiping-with-the-hand savage is going to fit in just fine.
Meet Pambazos. It’s a torta, sort of a sandwich, but sort of an oyster. It’s a loaf of bread hollowed out, filled in with taco fixings (crema, potato, quesa fresca, lettuce) and a sunny-side-up egg. If you eat this without using a fork, you’re going to look like someone who just said “Fuck it. I’m not using a fork.” That said, I strongly recommend eating this without using a fork.
Otherwise, you can score a French toast with cinnamon sugar, chocolate, orange caramel, and supremes; or huevos rancheros with carnitas, avocado, Pico de Gallo, black beans, avocado, and an egg.
On the main menu, entree plates range from pork ribs and queso fundido to fried oysters and grilled octopus. Quesadillas, chilaquiles, yucca, enmoladas, it’s all here. Prices, tacos included, range from $8-14. Chips and salsa are $7 – which I’m not wild about, but you do get three sauces for dipping. If you come with heat-sensitive friends, you can throw them one hell of a curveball by ordering the spiciest ones and coaxing them into “the mild one.”
I don’t know if it’s because I sat in virtually the same bar spot when it was The Glockenspiel as I do at Pajarito, but I’ve gotten more comfortable there in a year than I have at some restaurants and breweries in three or four years. Hesse and Nelson have managed to take what they’ve learned on the McKee Tree and offer it for diners in an uncomplicated, inexpensive way. You’re already used to this food; now, get used to having it like this. Start with the Brussels sprouts. Have a cocktail. Have two.
RELATED: During this month-long celebration Frank (that’s me) showed us to his new Saturday morning seat at Newport’s North Pole Restaurant. We covered the food truck we chase around the Twin Cities for pasties, pies, and scotch eggs. We featured the immortal Mama’s Pizza.
Minor clean-up edits were made shortly after this article’s publication.