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EXCEPTIONALLY RIGHTEOUS: Paso Fino elevates ordinary Hispanic cuisine to extraordinary levels

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As for the food, Paso Fino’s kitchen simply does what so many eateries fail to do: produce exceptionally fresh, authentic, interesting cuisine, served with a side of love.

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OK: I’ll fess up. When my editor handed me the homework of reviewing this next restaurant, I was slightly puzzled. By the look of Paso Fino’s website, this eclectic lounge belonged on the sexy streets of South Beach—not tucked away on Van Campen Boulevard where Buffalo Wild Wings once stood. The online menu suggested glaringly authentic cuisine (ranging from Mexican to Honduran to Puerto Rican), which immediately piqued my interest. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried the swanky spot might be far too hip for this Justin Bieber-blaring chick. (Is it too late now to say sorry?)

PLANTAIN SANDWICH: Jiberito de Pernil with pork consists of freshly braised pork, lettuce, cotija cheese, and mayo, sandwiched between two fried plantains. Photo by Shea Carver
PLANTAIN SANDWICH: Jiberito de Pernil with pork consists of freshly braised pork, lettuce, cotija cheese, and mayo, sandwiched between two fried plantains. Photo by Shea Carver

I strolled into Paso Fino on a chilly day to find that the interior was surprisingly unlike the Will Smith music video I expected to walk into. Then again, it was a Tuesday afternoon and the place was vacant. The massive establishment featured high ceilings, a fully stocked bar and an ideal atmosphere for late-night Latino boogying.

As I was the only person in the entire Paso Fino palace, I snagged the nearest bar stool to the streaming soccer game and studied the beer coolers. This place was sticking with its roots, and I dug it. No crafty West Coast IPAs here—but there was a copious selection of every cerveza I could imagine. To pair with my chips and housemade salsa starter, the Caribbean vibe struck me, so I opted for a Red Stripe. The lager came ice cold and evened out the subtle spice of the tomatoey blend. The yellow corn chips were freshly fried and lightly seasoned with salt.

Paso Fino’s menu was divided into three regional categories and offered photos for those who prefer a pre-meal visual. I asked my server, knowledgeable and friendly, for his ordering expertise. I was thoroughly satisfied by his recommendation. By the end of my mouthwatering meal, I realized anything on the menu most likely would have impressed me.

It was Taco Tuesday after all, so I started things off with the tacos dorados hondureños. The savory stuffed-and-rolled delights were reminiscent of traditional Mexican flautas. Spiced shredded chicken with mild peppers and onions filled the tortillas. The corn pockets produced an earthy masa flavor that can only come from handmade dough. No doubt these crispy flutes were freshly kneaded, flattened and fried that very day. The dish came piled high with a generous portion of four liberally filled tacos, topped with a hearty salsa, shredded cabbage, crumbled cheese, and pickled red onions. Each bite crunched with packed flavor. On the side, a small ramekin of sauce showcased fiery red and speckled crushed pepper seeds. My server cautioned me:  “hot.” I gingerly dunked a single prong from my fork into the zesty mixture and gave it a twirl. I dotted it onto my tongue, which immediately triggered a minor coughing fit. My nose began to run; I went back for seconds.

I’m a sucker for carnitas, so on to the huaraches I went. The standard Mexican classic tasted anything but average. Thanks to a pinch of magic from homemade corn tortillas and a righteously rich layer of pulled pork and creamy black beans, the plate packed a punch. The blisteringly fierce tomatillo salsa supplemented the filling dish. The tortilla, un-fried this time, stretched out across the oblong plate. On it was a mountain of meat, shredded lettuce, tangy Cojita cheese, sour cream, and buttery slices of avocado. I couldn’t decide whether to knife-and-fork the pile, go after it with my hands, or stick my face somewhere between the beans. I’ll leave it up to the imagination as to which route I took.

I didn’t know I was saving the best for last, but oh-my-sandwich! Undeniably a house specialty, the jibarito de pernil stole the show. Somewhere between the Red Stripe and the salty, glistening plantains, I was transported to a tropical paradise. Take a regular sandwich and forget everything you know about it—and that’s the jibarito de pernil. The handheld creation ditches bread and employs two long fried plantains as its vehicle. Taking another tip from my server, I chose the pork filling; he certainly steered me right. Succulent pieces of unctuous, fried pork spilled out of the sandwich. To make this already decadent dish even more indulgent, a creamy spread of mayonnaise clung to the inside of the toasty green plantains. Even in my overly-stuffed state, I couldn’t help but go back for more.

Though diners might not recognize it from the outside, Paso Fino is a unique culinary find that elevates ordinary Hispanic cuisine to an extraordinary level. So the next time family wants to head for a crappy chain, try swaying the group in another dinner direction. If friends are looking for a unique experience to break up the work week, check out Paso Fino’s free dance lessons on Wednesday night. For the weekend crowd, Fridays and Saturdays feature live music and what’s guaranteed to be a good time and packed house.

As for the food, Paso Fino’s kitchen simply does what so many eateries fail to do: produce exceptionally fresh, authentic, interesting cuisine, served with a side of love. The moral of the story: Don’t judge a restaurant by its website cover.

DETAILS:
Paso Fino
29 Van Campen Blvd. #109
(910) 769-7053
Mon., Tues, Thurs: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Wed., Fri., Sat.: 11 a.m.- 2 a.m.
Sun.: 11 a.m.-12 a.m.
www.pasofinobarandlounge.com

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