Restaurant groups can be tricky. With copious funds and plenty of consultants, they’re typically adept at coming up with “concepts” and the decor and menus that give them life. But sometimes the concept becomes the story itself, and the actual execution of the food can become a secondary concern.
Not so with the Heavy Restaurant Group, which has overseen the creation of Purple, Meet the Moon, Thackeray, Barrio, and now Pablo y Pablo (1605 N. 34th St., 973-3505). Tucked right next to the new Tableau offices in Fremont, the restaurant has managed to nail Mexican food in a way not many other spots in town have, all while keeping the group’s modern, clean aesthetic.
Part of Pablo y Pablo’s success lies in its ability to freshen the cuisine without totally overthinking it. Tacos still reign supreme, slightly bigger than street size, served in pairs—and there are about 12 iterations to choose from, from $4.50 to $6. The fillings run the gamut from lamb-belly carnitas (my personal favorite) to Baja fish tacos, grilled steak to charred broccoli. There are even meatball tacos (insanely good with salsa roja, Oaxaca and jack cheese, onion, and cilantro). What makes them particularly special—aside from great yellow-corn tortillas and well-cooked proteins—is the way the kitchen customizes the sauces and garnishes for each. For instance, a chipotle-braised chicken taco comes topped with romaine lettuce, crema, cilantro, and a jalapeño salsa, while the pork belly bahn mi gets dressed with cucumber, pickled vegetables, jalapeño, and sriracha aioli. The lamb belly, with its stronger flavor, is tempered with a light four-chile guacamole, mint, and pineapple salsa. I love the thought that goes into that—which flavors and textures work best with each, rather than just dumping cabbage and the same salsas on all of them. It also makes you feel that you can truly make a proper meal out of a bunch of tacos, since they all taste so utterly unique.
Of course, you don’t have to order tacos. There’s also an interesting ceviche: big chunks of shrimp tossed about with avocado, pico de gallo, tobiko, hot sauce, a basil-habanero oil, and lime. Unlike traditional ceviches, the marinade is subtle, and there’s virtually no liquid. Most ceviches tend to just taste like lime juice, so I appreciated the restraint. A Pablo chopped salad (small for $8, large for $13) is a fabulous blend of romaine and kale tossed with cotija cheese, chickpeas, spiced pepitas, avocado, pickled pepper, red onion, and—the twist—ibérico chorizo. It’s dressed in an oregano vinaigrette, which may not sound particularly Mexican but works nonetheless. It’s a meal without protein, but you can add tender, thinly sliced pieces of achiote chicken or grilled prawns ($6 and $7, respectively). The chicken tortilla soup is a fine rendition of a staple, thick and hearty with black beans, corn, and avocado and topped with green onion, cilantro, crema, and crisped tortillas. It has that homemade feel, and delivers a rich flavor. It can be a starter or a whole meal, depending on whether you order a cup or bowl.
The several times I’ve dined here, the monstrous nachos have seemed omnipresent on other tables—and there’s a vegan version, which I felt compelled to try. In place of cheese, they use a cashew cream which, unfortunately, didn’t work for me. Next time I’ll stick with the classic and add meat (either pork carnitas, braised chicken, or grilled steak) and make a meal for two from it—probably washed down with a pisco punch (a delicate yet strong drink of pisco, lemon, and pineapple) or a margarita, served on tap. Cocktails, in general, are well-crafted plays on Mexican classics.
No matter what you order, you’ll always be given a tiny bottle with a dropper that’s filled with the house salsa, a kick-ass burst of heat from habaneros that you can add to your liking. Since everything is so perfectly well-seasoned, it seems almost unnecessary, but it’s a nod to those who must take their Mexican with fire.
Pablo y Pablo draws a huge lunch and happy-hour crowd from Tableau, but even weeknights and weekends are requiring reservations—unless you’d like to wait at least a half-hour for a table. Three visits in, I’d say it’s worth the hype.