Pasco Kitchen & Lounge has a killer hook.
The nearly 7-month-old eatery near the University of Arizona specializes in "urban farm fare." The hip tag line translates to traditional comfort food (with a modern twist, of course) that's sourced from local farms.
Fresh and local - those are the buzz words in restaurants today. And rightly so.
But if you're a guilty carnivore, don't go poking around Pasco's website where you'll be confronted with pictures of cute, muddy-snouted pigs along with a beady-eyed rooster, that, quite frankly, looks like he deserves to be on the menu.
Chef Ramiro Scavo, who owns Pasco with his fiancee, Kelly Hadd, has created a great vibe in the modern yet homey, Restoration Hardware-like space with its dark wood accents, taupe walls and white windowsills. Scavo bused tables in high school and dreamed of having his own restaurant, a tug that continued even as a founder of the Market Restaurant Group (Harvest, Zona 78 and The Grill at Hacienda del Sol).
Pasco is his baby.
"It's as if I was throwing a party and inviting people over every day," Scavo says.
It's obvious, with a glance over the menu, that he's considered all the angles. Dishes are playful yet cover some serious foodie territory. On the menu: an andouille sausage corndog appetizer with fried okra and zucchini and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink burger dubbed the "big boy" that sports all kinds of extras - pork belly, a fried egg, even house-whipped organic hollandaise. So take that, Burger King.
Many items can be prepared gluten-free or vegetarian - all you have to do is ask.
The descriptions are positively lip-smacking, but the execution didn't always live up to the hype. Take the Pasco "Bacon and Eggs" appetizer ($7.50). It sounded too fun to pass up - spiced country French toast, flat-top braised bacon (translation: pork belly), griddled potatoes, seasonal jam and an "ouzzy fried farm fresh egg."
The generous plate featured thin wedges of egg-dipped bread with a cinnamony twang accentuated by the lovely peach jam, which was thick and reminiscent of a chutney. This we would have loved more of. The griddled potatoes piled on top would have been fine had they added some crunch, but instead they were mostly limp, so the dish came off leaden and starchy. The slabs of pork belly weren't so much decadent as they were ho-hum ham.
But, egg lovers will swoon over the hard-boiled/fried egg hybrid. Scavo says he cooks the egg at a controlled temperature for exactly 45 minutes. Then the egg's cooled and cracked open. The whole shebang is rolled in panko and flash-fried, creating a firm white with a custardy yolk.
The Early Morning Smoked BBQ Brisket ($9.50) also sounded phenomenal on paper - grass-fed Arizona beef with an ancho sauce, caramelized onion and aged artisan cheese. Though the flavor was good, the beef was off-puttingly fatty. The dish arrived on a comically small cutting board, which made for cute presentation but there wasn't much room to maneuver. The accompanying fries, though, were exactly as they should be - hot and crisp on the outside with pillowy-soft insides and generously seasoned with salt.
The Quinoa Super Food Bowl ($12.50) with citrus-grilled white prawns ($3.50) also was mixed. The prawns were sweet and juicy, perfectly grilled, and the steamed quinoa with a melange of zucchini, squash, spinach, ribbons of red and green peppers and sweet, firm carrots tasted from-the-garden fresh. We could have done without the tofu as big a child's building block. That is way too big for something that doesn't have a lot of flavor and even at its firmest has a questionable texture. Slice the tofu into thin wedges to maximize that crisp, grilled outside and minimize the gummy interior, and the quinoa would be just right.
Things fared better on the dinner side of the menu.
The River Roads Garden Chile Verde Chicken Enchiladas ($14) were perfect - creamy with just the right amount of smoky heat appearing at the edge of each bite.
The chicken and waffles ($14) added spicy Southwestern sassiness to the down-home dish. The white breast meat was melt-in-your-mouth succulent thanks to Scavo's prep. He not only brines the meat overnight but then soaks it in buttermilk before coating it in a cornmeal crust seasoned with cayenne and guajillo chile powder.
The only minor - very minor - complaint was the breading was too thick in spots. Still, I ate every bite - just pulled off the heavy coating and pretended it was a spicy hush puppy. The sweet chard compote with strawberries added a touch of green on top but was really unnecessary because the chicken didn't need any gussying up. And those waffles … Mmmmm. Let me just say, Pasco's waffles are the most perfect Belgian waffles ever. Ever.
They're fat and fluffy with crispy edges, and each tangy buttermilk bite held the sweet hint of citrus. A lovely mesquite honey-IPA (India Pale Ale) syrup was drizzled over the plate, and each and every drop of it was sopped up with waffle.
Service was friendly and attentive - our waiter didn't hesitate to pull up a chair and wax poetic about his favorites. Still, there were mighty long lag times between ordering and our food's arrival. It didn't seem to matter if only a few tables were occupied or if the joint was hopping.
When it comes to dessert, though, Pasco has definitely found its stride.
The selection of sweets changes since Scavo is the pastry chef, too. This, he says, is how he likes to keep things fresh and challenge himself. So one visit we sampled a lovely peach panna cotta ($6.50), a blend of cold, creamy custard with skin-on peaches and a crunchy cornmeal topping. Another time we nibbled strawberry shortcake ($6.50), which featured a dense-but-not-heavy, buttery cornmeal cake, sweet with brown sugar and kicked up with cinnamon and allspice.
There is one treat on the dessert menu, though, that Scavo says he doesn't dare take off: the chocolate beignets ($6.50). Smart move. They taste every bit as sinful as they sound - golden globes of hot fried dough that give way to a molten puddle of ganache made of semi-sweet and bittersweet chocolates. A dab of subtlety spicy caramel sauce glued each perfect beignet to the plate - and our hearts. Now that's a hook for a restaurant.
REVIEW: Pasco Kitchen & Lounge
820 E. University Blvd., 882-8013, pascokitchen.com
• Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays.
• Wine list: Medium-sized and moderately priced. Pasco specializes, though, in its own cocktails that use its infused alcohols.
• Noise level: It gets loud inside with those high ceilings. The patio, though, which wraps around the restaurant, is a nice alternative.
• Vegetarian options: There are some choices, and many dishes can be prepared vegetarian.
• Gluten-free: Ask your server - many items can be prepared this way.
• Dress: Tucson casual.
• Family call: Though there's not a specific kids' menu, Pasco is happy to accommodate little ones with entrees they'll eat.
• Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
• Price range: Dinner entrees from $9.50 for house-smoked pastrami sliders to $18 for braised, grass-fed beef.
• The name: "Pasco" is derived from the Latin for feed and graze.
• New: Chef Ramiro Scavo has a food cart with plans to offer tailgating and late-night street food options.