Holding Pattern 

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What's happening?" is a recurrent question at ¨Que Pasa? After spending two years renovating a rundown fish market into a gorgeous dining destination — in a neighborhood that needs one — owner John Sanchez battled with City Hall for months over a zoning issue involving parking spaces and square footage.

As of this writing, Sanchez still faces the uphill battle of attracting clientele without a liquor license, which means that on most nights you'll find plenty of open tables and plenty of wait staff to dote on you.

The décor resonates warmth, from hand-blown Italian glass sconces to cherry paneling that wraps the room. The elegant wooden bar, Sanchez's own handiwork, is snug along the back wall. Lively world music matches the cheer. The only thing missing is a boisterous neighborhood crowd.

Sanchez's menu is defined by its simplicity: three appetizers, three desserts and a handful of entrees in-between, many of which share ingredients. The chimmichurri sauce (a pungent South American staple of chile, lime and garlic) that accompanies most dishes is made in-house and is reason enough to come back. I can only imagine how that dry-spicy tang will read against a good cold cerveza. Negra Modelo maybe? Who knows?

Highlights are the appetizers, which will make this a great destination for happy hour. The stuffed mushroom with crab and bacon is rescued from "oh that again" by the notable freshness of the goat cheese and the yellow-pepper coulis. The skewer of grilled shrimp, plum tomato and yellow pepper was equally well-executed, the shrimp tight and crisp. The cooking shows that Sanchez has a vision of Latin comfort food and the chops to be a real boon for the number of folks within easy walking distance (no matter how many parking spots they provide).

Prices are those of a neighborhood joint, with a menu ranging from $10-$20 at dinner. The lime-roasted pork and chicken that come as entrées (and also feature in grilled flatbread sandwiches) are tender, falling-off-the-bone lovely — real slow-cooked goodness. A solid rendition of the classic Cuban sandwich rounds out the lower-priced end of the menu.

The ribs would have benefited from a glaze of some kind, maybe just basted with the omnipresent chimmichurri, but they were tender and succulent. The Che Guevara steak, a well-seasoned New York strip, was a juicy medium-rare. Plantain-encrusted orange roughy, light and flaky, rounds out the high-end options.

The sides are simple and homey with variable success. The Puerto Rican rice resembles the packaged saffron rice I've seen in Latin groceries around town, and I couldn't tell with certainty if the black beans were from a can or prepared ons-ite with virtually no spice. The tostones were nicely toasted; the plantains were sweet and moist. A squash roasted with a breadcrumb-and-bacon crust was interestingly Southern to my palate, as were the sweet potatoes, which could have been dessert.

On one visit we ended the meal with a huge slice of moist chocolate layer cake that had only just cooled enough to be iced. Another visit culminated with the ¨Que Pasa? Supreme, an original confection closer to sweet spice cake than cheesecake but with aspects of both. The dried cherries and cream cheese icing were good, but I kept looking longingly toward the chocolate cake on display on the bar.

Contrary to common perceptions, it takes more skill and/or money to run a kitchen when it's slow than bustling. You have to keep enough product on hand for the full menu options while avoiding waste. The simplicity of the ¨Que Pasa? menu suits this challenge and might allow it to hang on during the restaurant's seemingly endless soft opening. Might. I have to wonder if this culinary foray into the center of Church Hill will suffer the same fate as the former Jumpin' J's Java, which you can just glimpse from the table in the beautiful westward-facing window.

So, what is happening in RVA when smart, local, resident business owners try to bring economic viability to underserved neighborhoods only to suffer regulatory hassles from the city they're trying so hard to serve? ¨Que Pasa? indeed. S

¨Que Pasa? ($-$$)
623 N. 25th St.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-8 p.m. on the patio; inside open until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. weekends.
Brunch: Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Wheelchair accessible

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