How heavenly it must be for residents of Lansing’s eastside neighborhood to have a wide array of businesses that are truly walkable for them. Strange Matter Coffee, FLEXCity Fitness and El Oasis taco truck have me scratching my head, contemplating a move into the neighborhood, and the recent addition of the second location of Old Town stalwart Pablo’s is adding a buzz around town — and fuel to my personal fire.
For those of us who’ve grown accustomed to Pablo’s Old Town, the restaurant on Michigan Avenue is familiar but updated. It’s sun-drenched, with plenty of outdoor seating that a girlfriend and I took advantage of during those random 80-degree days a few weeks ago, before it snowed again a few times and everyone’s seasonal allergies exploded. All diners are offered complimentary chips and salsa, and while I try not to look a gift horse in the mouth, I prefer my chips a bit saltier and my salsa a touch thicker.
I believe service remains a work in progress at the new restaurant because, while we observed plenty of the tables surrounding us start to place and receive orders, we remained drinkless without having ordered anything. We were able to track down a server, and I asked for Gorditas ($14) — one veggie, one with chorizo and one with al pastor (marinated pork with pineapple). The al pastor immediately took the crown as the overall winner. The pork is insanely flavorful and tender, with just a hint of sweetness that pairs perfectly with the fat, chewy tortilla. I surprised myself and loved the veggie gordita, which includes a mix of carrots, cabbage and zucchini. Chorizo is a perpetual favorite of mine, as are gorditas. If you’re not familiar, think of thick pita bread, sliced but not all the way through to create a pocket sandwich. The meal was huge, and I ate every bite of it.
On my next visit, Mr. She Ate and I met for a weekday lunch. I chose the Taco Salad ($10), which is basically just nachos. Don’t get me wrong, they’re delicious nachos, but please don’t bluff your way into thinking this is a salad of any sort. (Why would you? It’s like that weird “salad” that some people make with chopped grapes and Snickers bars. Get real.) For my protein, although I was extremely tempted to have more al pastor, I went with chorizo. I was able to finish about half the plate comfortably, then made myself uncomfortable while I ate several more bites and watched my self-control walk out the back door. She was well dressed and had an iced coffee.
Mr. She Ate had Mexican Tacos with chicken ($14). One thing about both of us is that we love cilantro and will always choose the cilantro and onion option versus the lettuce, cheese and tomato option. I love the simplicity of cilantro and onion and the way the flavors let the protein take center stage. Another thing about us is that we love corn tortillas and will always choose them over flour tortillas. Corn tortillas are just greasy enough, and the texture is, of course, completely different and so much better than a flour tortilla. I equate a flour tortilla to a bread bowl: flavorless filler carb that’s simply a vehicle meant to deliver the good stuff. My solution is to either deliver the good stuff directly to my mouth or at least make the vehicle comparably tasty.
For a takeout lunch, I tried the Enchiladas with vegetables and green salsa ($14). The restaurant’s vegetables have proven to me that vegetarian Mexican entrées can be just as flavorful and delicious as animal-protein-based dishes, and while I can’t testify to whether the entire plate is completely vegetarian, I would encourage those of us who are vegetarian-curious to try the options at Pablo’s. Then, if you’re lucky, you can walk back to your home in the excellent eastside neighborhood and know that you’re the envy of this reviewer.
Who doesn’t love a good Mexican restaurant? When most people find one, they remain loyal to their go-to. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, margaritas — there’s a lot to enjoy. Around town, you’ll find several storefronts serving Latin-inspired flavors and food trucks hawking tacos early and late, especially on Tuesdays. My much better half’s family has Mexican and Spanish roots, so I’ve been to many family functions where chorizo and eggs, tostadas and migas, a corn tortilla and scrambled eggs dish, are the highlights of the meals. My sister-in-law’s tacos are incredible, and my mole enchiladas are darn good as well, if I do say so myself. All this to say, I know good Mexican food and enjoy it.
The first Pablo’s restaurant opened in 2005 on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, and it was one of the early critical establishments in the revitalization of Old Town. Its chimichangas, tamales and more gave the area an initial food anchor. Pablo’s showed that Old Town could be a culinary destination, paving the way for Meat BBQ and The Creole Burger Bar & Southern Kitchen. The petite but mighty Mexican bistro pushed plates of rice and beans alongside heaven-stuffed, fresh tortillas. It quickly became popular and, in the summertime, the few outdoor tables available are constantly occupied, even without a liquor license.
Pablo Maldonado’s business recently expanded to a second location, this time attempting to carve out a following in the busy Michigan Avenue corridor. The established brand bodes well for the new location, and the business stands to benefit from the additional foot traffic its new neighbors offer.
It’s clear Maldonado paid special attention to the ambiance at the new location. Glass etchings on the exterior windows feature dignitaries of Mexican heritage. Inside, the walls are adorned with murals of Mexican landscapes and tile mosaics, and the booths feature handpainted artwork — all of which offer an immersive experience. These cultural components are embedded into a modern, open dining space that includes a large bar stocked with rum, tequila and cervezas. The restaurant’s patio comfortably fits 10 tables with umbrellas, and it’s already a welcome retreat for eastside residents who bike, walk or drive over for dinner and libations.
For this location to enjoy sustained success, though, it will need to work out some of its service kinks. The staff is courteous and sometimes downright entertaining, but don’t be in a hurry for the restaurant to open.
On my weekend visit to Pablo’s, I was greeted in the parking lot by a group of runners who were using the spot as a start and finish line for a half marathon. I was beginning to rethink my desire to smash some breakfast burritos, but I soldiered forth. After I prompted the young bartender that the restaurant was supposed to open at 9 a.m., he apologized and welcomed me in by offering some freshly fried tortilla chips and salsa. Somehow still warm but not greasy, I was happy I didn’t have to share since I was there for takeout. I ordered the Chilaquiles ($11) and will again someday soon. The dish is a base of layered corn tortilla chips mixed with a mild red salsa, topped with queso fresco and sour cream and served alongside two eggs, refried beans, avocado and chopped steak. The steak provides textures to the soft eggs and tortilla chips, and the flavor is incredible.
The Quesabirria Tacos ($16) are almost too good to be true. My daughter had been wanting to try birria for a while. The social media food phenomenon takes advantage of the spicy consommé that the shredded beef cooks in as a basting agent for the tortilla shells before they’re topped with cheese and cooked, and then again in a bowl as a dipping condiment. We were both thrilled by the depth of flavor. Also a hit are the Flautas al pastor, fried tacos with roast pork and pineapple that arrive on a bed of lettuce, onion and tomato. Crunchy and delectable, I’ll order these again, too. I would’ve added the mini Mojarra ($13), a fried whole fish, to this list, but it sadly arrived 20 minutes after the rest of the meal.
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