I’ve found Mexican food to be a dishonor in Richmond. As a native Texan, Mexican food was traditional fare – no bells, whistles, or table-side-guacamole (I still have yet to understand this). It was real, it was good, and it was concise.
Moving to Richmond, I discovered “Mexican restaurants” happily serving pre-made tortillas, “ranchero” sauce resembling Prego in every possible way, and over-hyped entrees slathered with white cheese sauce. Too bad my lady (born and raised in RVA) grew up thinking this was actually good. Shame.
I was relieved to hear Millie’s owners opened a quaint Taqueria-inspired joint over in Shockoe Bottom early this year.
The colorful spray paint that adorns the exterior of Tio Pablo could make you second guess whether you’re walking into an eclectic restaurant or a tattoo shop. Maybe it’s the Spanish music blaring outside that’ll give reassurance you’re here to eat, not get inked (too clever?).
Inside, I found the decor whimsical, quirky, and also industrial. By the bar, a dismembered baby doll rests on top of longhorns and Day of the Dead-like masks dot the wall above the kitchen window. Corrugated lines parts of walls and the place still holds true to its original space with exposed brick walls. It’s almost like Frida Kahlo gave modern design a whirl. In the middle of the small dining space sits a large communal table, the adjacent walls house long counter style tables with glossy red bar stools. There are a few private tables if you’re lucky enough to snag one (or maybe you like the community table feel).
After being seated, we were pleasantly greeted by our server with chips with pico de gallo. Sadly, our chips were cold and stale; maybe it was because we were “those” early diners and fresh warm chips were served later once traffic picked up. On the upside, the pico de gallo was fresh and spicy with noticeable bright chunks of jalapeno. I ordered a margarita and was on the mark with perfect notes of lime and the warm balance of tequila.
The menu was simple and unpretentious. The taco list (which also can be ordered tostada style) is Tio Pablo’s main attraction, boasting around 10 choices. Single tacos are a steal at $3 each. For $10, you can order the plate which gets you 2 tacos and 2 sides. For those passing on tacos, Tio Pablo’s got you covered with house favorites like Huevos Rancheros ($9) and Carne Asada ($12). Pricing is extremely reasonable.
I settled on the taco plate with an Al Pastor (marinated pork and pineapple) and De Camarones (shrimp, tomatoes, nopales, and avocado) tacos. For sides, I chose black beans and nopales. My girlfriend chose the De Pollo Chipotle tostada plate with potatoes and rice (double carbing–sexy).
The turnaround time for our food was quick; I was happy not just because I was hungry but also because I was fed up trying to make the cold chips edible. The portion size of the tacos and sides were perfect – not too little and not too much (hence Goldilocks analogy). The Al Pastor was fine, I was slightly bummed it only had a few pieces of pineapple and a more robust flavor was lacking. Luckily, my server stopped at our table to ask me “do you like spicy?” Of course my lady feels the urge to answer for me with a, “yes, she does.” He ran to the kitchen and presented three different kinds of hot sauce – mild, medium, and hot (I think they called it 3 day sauce – still not sure what this is in reference to). The taco was great after the jolt of medium sauce. The De Camarones (shrimp tacos) were so-so. It’s rare I order shrimp so I was a little disappointed that only little bits of it were stuffed in the corn tortilla. I did enjoy the creamy avocado slices mixed with the sweet of spiciness of the sauce.
The black beans were standard but the Nopales won me over. For those who don’t know what Nopales are, they’re segments of prickly pear cactus. At Tio Pablo, they serve it with cool tomato, cilantro, and queso fresco. It’s light, unique, and fresh.
Peering into my girlfriend’s plate, I asked how her meal was, to which she responded “cold.” Bummer. I snagged a bite of her tostada and was quickly impressed with the authentic smokiness of the shredded chicken. Her rice was fluffy and fresh, but she was right, it was pretty cold.
Overall, this place was adequate, definitely a much needed transition from the shoddy Mexican chain restaurants. Since we dined pretty early, we missed the excitement and energy that comes with the dinner crowd. The Taqueria inspired menu, fresh ingredients, and quaint dining space is not to be missed.