I'm baffled by how Mexican food, one of the most varied and flavorful cuisines in the world — and from a neighboring country, no less — too often turns up here as a gloppy, homogenous taste of blah and burps.
What buoys me is Richmond's taco craze. Specifically, a creative taco culture made popular by food trucks, bending tacos into Korean, Indian or French territories, and the return to authenticity, where ingredients are fresh and the traditional methods are honored. The latter long has been offered by La Milpa, La Palmera and Latino Village, and recently was joined by Don't Look Back, Habañero and Tio Pablo.
Tio Pablo is the newest creation of Paul Keevil, owner of Millie's Diner and Lulu's Restaurant. Having lived in Los Angeles for years and traveled frequently to Mexico, Keevil knows authentic Mexican food. He picked chef Martin Noriega, a veteran at Millie's, to run Tio Pablo's kitchen, bringing his expertise in the food he grew up with in Morelos, Mexico.
The small taco restaurant in Shockoe Bottom has a colorful graffiti facade designed by artist Vincent Mills. Inside are exposed brick walls, a blond wood bar and counters with red stools along the side walls. A communal table occupies the middle of the dining room, while a couple of small tables nestle by the front windows. The vibe is super casual.
Lunch service is quick and efficient. We order a glass of horchata and tamarindo agua fresca ($3.50 each). The horchata is lighter and less sweet than versions other restaurants serve, but it's perfect for me. I like that I get a better taste of the rice water and cinnamon without the cloying sugar. The tamarind drink is refreshing, the way agua fresca should be. A small bowl of warm and crispy tortilla chips arrives with pico de gallo that's fresh and zesty, even if it's too chunky to scoop up with one chip.
On the menu, tacos and tostadas can be ordered as a $10 plate with two sides, or individually for $3. House specialty plates range from $9 to $12.
We eat a lot of tacos at Tio Pablo for this review. They're sprinkled liberally with fresh cilantro and diced onion. The numerous fillings all sound appetizing, so we order individual tacos for variety's sake. Taco al pastor con piña asada ($3) — literally, shepherd-style with grilled pineapple — is fragrant with cumin, cinnamon, clove, black pepper and that earthy aroma of achiote, used mostly for its red coloring properties. Cayenne and ancho chili heat linger while morsels of grilled pineapple provide relief.
Taco de pollo chipotle con queso Oaxaca ($3) — a chipotle chicken taco with cheese — is tender and deliriously smoky with chipotle. Years ago, I took a cooking seminar led by chef Rick Bayless, who insisted that we toast the dried Mexican chilies to blisters before reconstituting them. The result of that one simple step, which Bayless said many restaurants in America skip, is a haunting, smoky flavor like no other. Tio Pablo's cooks must have known this crucial step too, and I'm happy for it.
Taco de lengua ($3), or beef tongue, is rich and tastes like a very tender pot roast. Tongue is a tough but fatty muscle that must be braised for hours to get it so tender and devoid of fat. It should be on your must-try list.
Unlike the tacos, the tostadas are served with crema and queso fresco. In tostada de nopales ($3) the crispy shell is topped with tangy tomatoes, crunchy cactus, lettuce and jalapeño. The crema and queso fresco provide rich and creamy elements to the vegetarian mixture. I'm pleased that the cactus is fresh, because I dislike the taste of canned nopales.
Of the side dishes, the frijoles charros, pinto beans with Surry ham ($3.50), are outstanding. The fried potatoes with peppers ($3) are a decent option if you must have potatoes. Both the black beans and rice ($3 each) are just OK, although the hint of the Mexican herb epazote in the beans shows that the kitchen cares.
My favorite is the gordita ($4 each, $12 a plate). While the taco is soft and the tostada is crispy, the gordita is both. Who wouldn't like that? Rarely found in town, the gordita is a masa corn cake that's been cooked on the griddle and then fried to puff up and create a pocket for stuffing. Crispy on the outside, it's pillowy inside. I choose the carne asada (grilled ribeye) to stuff my "little fat one." The grilled beef strips are chewy and could have used more seasoning or a sauce. I eat the delectable gordita by itself. Next time I think I'll go for the tongue or the pork.
Tio Pablo raises the bar with bold, authentic flavors and friendly service. Diners who want to uphold a higher standard in Mexican cuisine should keep this place in business. S
Tio Pablo ($)
1703 E. Franklin St.
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly credited Linda Lauby with painting the exterior graffiti. Artist Vincent Mills designed and painted the graffiti, while Lauby created all the art for the restaurant's interior.