Pajarito joins one of St. Paul’s oldest, now one of St. Paul’s hottest, avenues.
West 7th was already cool, of course, peppered with great, if overlooked, places to eat and drink. There is no need to change West 7th or the West End neighborhood. But there was certainly room to add to it. The avenue is red-hot right now, from the Xcel Energy Center to Schmidt Artists Lofts. The success of new ventures, like Bad Weather Brewing Company, joins established hot spots like Mancinis and Cossetta’s, while looking to the future with Keg and Case Market, Stone Brewery, and New Bohemia coming this year.
And Pajarito, which opened its doors during the final days of a tumultuous 2016, is making a name for itself in the midst of it all.
Pajarito, the restaurant
We may have spent a few months lamenting the loss of the Glockenspiel (the space in which Pajarito is now housed), but the past is the past and the future is now. St. Paul is no longer lagging behind in creating neighborhood restaurants of note; in creating quality, awesome spots suitable for both a quick bite and cocktail or a nice sit-down-and-stay dinner.
Pajarito embraces the fact that, on some level, it’s just a taco joint. The minds (and hands and hearts and souls) behind Pajarito don’t try and take on more than they can handle. This is evidenced by the beautiful simplicity of the menu.
The tacos ($9) are great. The Carnitas is the best so far, and perhaps one of the best in the cities. You can truly taste the grill on the Al Pastor, something usually only achieved after years of meat fried into the flat top. The Smelt was the only meh selection, but if you’re in the mood for a fish taco it still delivers.
They focus their efforts on flavor and spice, on the experience, rather than/as opposed to reinventing the wheel (taco). They take something already established in the Twin Cities and say,
Hey, we’ve got our own way to do it.
Items from the “Parilla” (grill) are outstanding as well. Nothing about it seems brand new; as mentioned with the Al Pastor, it tastes as though they have been grilling for years, capturing that depth of flavor found in meat protein that single-handedly keeps people from becoming herbivores. The pork chop ($21) offers spicy goodness in a pasilla glaze, and the oregano chili-rubbed chicken ($16) is tender and satisfying. And it’s always worth asking what they have for fish that day.
You can find classics like Queso Fundido ($10), an awesome Torta made with grilled beef ($13), and Chilaquiles ($11) as well. The menu is Minnesota meets Mexico in the best way possible, capturing a certain warmth made for cold weather eating while still maintaining the brightness found south of the border.
The salsas (3 for $7, or 6 for $12) were one of the most enjoyable parts of the meal. Dipping chips, mixing with guacamole (excellent as well), or pouring over tacos and entrees, it’s the respectable, adult version of playing with your food.
There’s no reason you can’t have a little fun with tried-and-true cuisine.
They’ve got a lot going on in the drinks department as well. The beer selection is a blend of Minnesota and Mexican locals. They also have a Czech beer, Staropramen, a respectful nod to the CSPS Hall (a Czech-Slovak cultural center founded over 130 years ago, located upstairs) who own the building.
The cocktail menu balances drinks both classic and creative. But leaning more to the creative side with confidence. The only place with more tongue-in-cheek cocktails might be, well, Tongue in Cheek. You can get the margarita you usually want to accompany your tacos, or can try the You Boys Ever Been To Oaxaca? ($10), made with Vida mezcal, Licor 43, Earl Giles Pineapple, caramel syrup, and lime juice. Or a Mexican Monk Walks Into A Bar… ($11) with tequila, yellow chartreuse, honey, lime, and hibiscus ice.
The space is clean, casual, comfortable. It’s certainly modern, utilizing a mix of light and dark wood with exposed brick, and with large windows letting in enough natural light; it’s at once intimate and open/airy. An overhanging art piece made of bicycle rims separates bar from dining room. It’s hip, to be sure, but it’s trying without trying too hard.
You can feel the eyes of a Day of the Dead mural on the wall watching you as you eat, but they’re watching you without judgement.
When thinking of “hip new restaurants” there is still that question of what we actually need. An initial fear was that the Twin Cities’ doesn’t need another taco joint (wait, what? Always more tacos!), but that isn’t the case. Minneapolis and St. Paul need places with a mission; places that know what they want to do, know what they can do, and do it well. What we don’t need is places trying to do something they can’t. Following trends for trends’ sake. Cashing in without putting out.
This is where Pajarito excels most. You can dine without feeling like you should be someone you’re not, or self-conscious about what you’re wearing, or wondering if you’re missing something when the food arrives. Pajarito makes good food from good ingredients. The service is fast and friendly. It’s about a great dining experience and nothing more. Simple.
Pajarito and the new St. Paul
Along with Tori Ramen, the newest (and latest rendition of) Revival, J. Selby’s, and Pajarito now open, as well as the coming Keg and Case farmer’s market and restaurants at the Schmidt Artist Lofts (less than a mile down the street from Pajarito), we have a lot to be excited about.
St. Paul dining is certainly experiencing a sea change.
And as diners we’re figuring out what we want to spend our money on. The eats, the drinks, the visions we want to support. There have been a lot of restaurant closings lately, but there is more than a little hope that perhaps what is coming is just as, if not more, exciting than what has been.
There is no need for buzzwords like “elevated” or “artisinal.” No need to take a sledgehammer to what has already worked (although Pajarito clearly took a sledge to parts of the Glockenspiel space, but that’s a different story) in order to establish something new. Just good food done right in a unique and personal way.
Good food speaks for itself. Pajarito speaks for itself and stands as a testament to simplicity and classic dining as the neighborhood, the city, and the world continues to grow and change.
It’s places like this that make us confident in saying, welcome to a new age of St. Paul dining.
Pajarito | 605 7th Street West | Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102 | 651-340-9545