When Stephan Hesse and Tyge Nelson, co-owners and chefs at Pajarito, opened their second location at 50th and France in Edina, they wanted to take their successful experimentation to the next level. Hesse casually calls the new location the “2.0 version.” With a bigger kitchen and more seating, they were able to expand the menu and cocktail selection. With a private dining area downstairs that seats about 60, they’re eager to host events like special catered meals, tequila tastings, cocktail classes or pop-up dinners featuring chefs from around town.
The duo’s experimentation has led to some “happy accidents,” like when they created the menu for their St. Paul Pajarito location, they weren’t planning on featuring any brussels sprouts.
Pajarito in St. Paul was originally slated to open in the fall of 2016, but the opening got pushed back to December, and a proposed corn dish was bumped out of season. Hesse and Nelson improvised with brussels sprouts—fried and fancied up with a Mexican-street-corn-style aioli featuring lime juice and hot sauce—and a legend was born.
They sell like crazy and customers consistently complain when they are taken off the menu in favor of in-season vegetables.
“People call all the time and they’re like, ‘I don’t get it, I can get them at the grocery store,’” Hesse says. “People get very upset we don’t have them on. But we just want to make sure the product is good.”
Hesse calls successes like these “happy accidents,” and brussels sprouts are not the only example. When Hesse and Nelson started serving grilled Spanish octopus, they thought they’d sell one or two a night. They now go through 50 pounds of octopus a week.
You could argue this accident-friendly attitude is what has led to the acclaim and success of Pajarito. They’re eager to experiment and evolve, and with experience in a wide range of cuisines, they have the culinary expertise necessary to turn their concepts into crazes.
“We just kind of mess around with things, and when we think it’s a screw up, we taste it and try it and people love it, and then we’re like, well, guess it wasn’t a screw up,” Hesse says. “We’re trying to ever-evolve ourselves.”
Hesse grew up in St. Paul, and his family would head to West Seventh on the weekends to visit restaurants like Cossetta, DeGidio's and Mancini’s Char House. He wants to create a similar neighborhood staple at both the West Seventh and Edina Pajarito locations.
“That community area on 50th and France feels like that West Seventh area,” Hesse says.
The two Pajaritos will be like fraternal twins, Hesse says: similar, but not quite identical. The menu in Edina carries about 85 to 90 percent of what you’ll find in St. Paul, which is contemporary Mexican fare.
Hesse and Nelson designed the original Pajarito menu to be a mash-up of a taqueria, family-style casual plates like chilaquiles and more elaborate dishes like grilled octopus.
The taco section ($9 for two) of the menu features classics like the popular pork carnitas, braised in sweetened milk, lard and cinnamon for four hours before being served with avocado and onion. Switching culinary gears, there’s also Tennessee hot crispy chicken tacos. You may be unsurprised to learn Hesse believed these would be a temporary experiment for a pop-up, until customers began to ask, “Where in the hell’s that taco?”
Skip down to the small plates section for casual and complex dishes alike, including the octopus ($16), beloved brussels sprouts ($10) and sweet potato ($13) that is another extremely popular happy accident, charred on Pajarito’s wood-fired grill and served with salsa negra, crema and cheese.
The potatoes share that wood-fired grill with other Pajarito offerings, including pork chops (served with pineapple salsa, $23) and steak (featuring mole verde, $23).
At the new location, instead of a wood-fired grill, Pajarito took advantage of the wood-fired ovens left behind from Mozza Mia, a previous wood-fired pizza restaurant. (More recently, the building was briefly home to Moderna Kouzina, a fine dining restaurant.) Hesse promises the same flavor and smoke, minus the grill markings.
Don’t forget the innovative cocktail menu, which, thanks to some snarky captions, is fun to read even if you don’t plan on imbibing. Try the habanero cilantro margarita ($11) which comes with a “not Minnesota nice” warning and features El Jimador tequila, cilantro syrup, lime, habanero tincture and curacao. If you’re feeling a bit decadent, check out the barrel-select tequila cocktails ($15). Some of the Pajarito staff went all the way to Tequila, Mexico to pick out the perfect tequila for these drinks.
The wide-ranging, inventive menu is unsurprising considering Hesse does not claim a food-genre loyalty; he’s worked as a chef for the St. Paul Hotel, Stella’s Fish Cafe, Masu Sushi and Libertine. Nelson’s chef experience includes La Belle Vie, Solera, Barrio, The Inn and Chino Latino. Both worked under famed Minnesota chef and James Beard award-winner Tim McKee, which is how they met.
And they probably won't stop at Pajarito. Hesse and Nelson already have ideas for some different restaurant concepts they’d like to start in the next few years.
“I think my goal is to be a restauranteur, not just a chef. I’d like to have multiple places at some point. But this one’s got to work … we’ll just take it day by day,” Hesse says.
For now, they’re working to ensure the Edina location is just as inviting as the St. Paul spot.
“That was the whole goal of the [original] location, is we want people to feel like it’s a home away from home,” Hesse says. “Even though the decor might be a little different than your house.”
As of this writing, service was curbside takeout only. Call ahead for possible menu changes/updates.