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Chef’s Dish: Pajarito Takes Mexican Cuisine to New Heights

Tyge Nelson, left, and Stephan Hesse chose Mexican as their next venture to present their own take on the much-loved style.

Pajarito is not your neighborhood Mexican restaurant—and that's not a bad thing. “We really wanted to just do something that was kind of our own,”  Tyge Nelson says about the restaurant he and his business partner, Stephan Hesse, opened in late 2016 in the old Glockenspiel site in St. Paul. “We’re not opening a Mexican place trying to compete with the great ones already here.”

Pajarito has a contemporary Mexican menu. “Not your traditional Minnesota Mexican with rice and beans,”  Nelson points out. A good deal of inspiration for the restaurant came from travel to places like Chicago, New York and ultimately Mexico. “We eat a lot and find things we like,” Nelson says of their travels. “We use that in our own way.”

Previously, Nelson worked in Stillwater for five years at La Belle Vie, followed by opening Barrio in Lowertown St. Paul and working for Minneapolis staples like Chino Latino. The move to Pajarito’s location on West 7th near the Mississippi River turned out to be ideal for the concept.

“We were a little nervous because we’re a change of pace from what was here before,” Nelson says. As Pajarito was preparing to open, neighbors would stop in to see the progress. The people kept coming after the restaurant opened. 

“For a Mexican restaurant, (we) have a lot of vegetarian options,” Nelson says, citing the use of nonclassical ingredients for sauces. The resulting friendliness for vegetarians was a happy accident. Perhaps uniquely for the cuisine, but certainly not for recent times, Brussels sprouts done in an elote style have been one of their most popular items. 

“We’re on the backside of the trend,” Nelson says, who was originally going to serve corn in the elote style. Corn was out of season and the Brussels sprouts were called up.

Other popular dishes of the moment include enmoladas with mole sauce and housemade crema; grilled octopus; and roasted carrots with burnt bread chili sauce, one of the vegetarian options.

Nelson’s favorite dish is their torta ahogada, also known as drowned sandwich, that he describes as a bastardized chili-cheese steak with thinly shaved beef, roasted poblanos and onions and housemade nacho cheese sauce, all served in a pool of spicy tomato broth.

But it’s not just the vegetarian dishes that are worthy ordering, here’s one worth making yourself. 

Lamb Albondigas

5 lbs. ground lamb
1.5 cup bread crumbs
5 egg yolks
3 onions, minced
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 jalapeños, minced
3 T cumin
2 T coriander
1 T smoked paprika
1 t cayenne pepper
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
¼ cup epazote, chopped
1 T chile powder
1 cup queso cotija, grated

In a sauté pan, heat ¼ cup canola oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté to soften, don't allow to color. Add the jalapeños and cook for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add spices; sauté for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl; allow to cool to room temp. Once cooled, add the lamb, bread crumbs, eggs, cheese and fresh herbs. Once cooled,  portion into balls, roll to smooth and place on a sheet pan. Place in a 300-degree oven and roast until they are just cooked through, approximately 15-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.


Mole Negro

5 Pasilla Negra chiles
5 Guajillo chiles
4 Ancho chiles
2 Chipotle chiles
1 onion, chopped
8 cloves garlic, sliced
¼ cup almonds
¼ cup peanuts
¼ cup pecans
1" stick canela cinnamon
3 cloves
1 cup lard
2 T dried apricots
1 banana, ripe
½ cup sesame seeds, toasted
½ lb tomatoes, roasted
½ lb tomatillos, roasted
1 T dried oregano
5 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste

Place each of the chiles on a sheet tray and place in the oven. Roast for approximately 5-10 minutes until they are VERY dark red to almost black. The chiles should be very brittle when they are done cooking. Be very careful not to burn them as they will taste bitter. Place in a container and cover with warm water and allow to rehydrate. Toast the seeds in a sauté pan until golden brown. Do the same with the spices and place in a container. Once the chiles have rehydrated, place them, along with the nuts, spices and some of the soaking water, in the bowl of a blender and puree to a smooth paste. In a medium rondeau, place the lard and put over medium high heat. Once the lard is hot, add the chile puree and cook. Be careful with this step as the mix will sputter and splatter, remove from the heat temporarily to cut down on the spattering. Cook until it is a thick paste. Place the tomatoes, garlic, oregano and tomatillos in the blender and puree until smooth. Add to the chile mix. Add the chicken stock. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook until reduced to a heavy cream like consistency. Remove from the heat, puree again in a blender and pour through a chinois. Place in the cooler and allow to cool.

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