Quick Summary: This Don Pablo’s location was a long-time favorite of mine back in the day, and I’m so glad it’s back open – we had an awesome time here, both myself and my Cloaked Reviewers. It seems that service issues are under control since their re-open and they are back on track, serving some awesome Tex Mex food!!
Review Disclaimer: This review is part of a series of restaurant reviews that follows The Watering Mouth’s restaurant review guidelines. My Tasting photographs may not show the true portion of a meal a typical customer would receive. These reviews are based on two visits to a restaurant, one open Tasting where I taste and photograph a restaurant’s best dishes, and one full, anonymous review (like the typical restaurant-goer would experience) found at the bottom. We are honest with our reviews, and assume that each restaurant is consistently performing to the standards we experienced!
Background Info on the Review
Warning: nostalgia flows from this point on. I used to work in marketing at Lennar back in 2006 for a few years back in the Florida real estate industry’s heyday, and at that time, Don Pablo’s on Fruitville was open for business. We (namely me and a girlfriend) used to go there at least twice a week for lunch. We would always order the same thing every time, being the creatures of habit that we were. I mean, when you know it’s good and you’ll like it every time, why switch?? She would always get the two chicken enchiladas and I, two cheese. And it was glorious.
When the location closed, it was a sad day for us. Seems a lonely tumbleweed was the good metaphor for that area once companies started laying people off, and I never went back there until it was the Loft Ristobar. And even though the Loft had a killer chorizo burger, I only went there once, maybe subconsciously out of longing for the old Don Pablo’s.
Okay, this is saccharine, but I’ll tell ya, I really did love those enchiladas. So when I heard that they were opening back up, and in the same location!, I was excited to say the least. In the beginning, I heard a lot of reports that they had difficulties getting back into the swing of things and a lot of customer complaints, but the awesome time at my Tasting plus the good report from my Cloaked Reviewer, I have to say that I think they are back! I normally don’t review chains, but because of my nostalgia, I made an exception!
Now, when you see the above image of 3 margaritas (altogether there were 4), just know that I drink responsibly! But let me say that 3 pm on a Wednesday is as good a time as any to start drinking! I brought my good friend Paul from SuncoastJobs.com (really quick plug, check out his site, it’s a great local job-searching site :) on this tasting due to the odd timing, and we had a good old time!
Pro Tip: The bathroom sink hasn’t changed from what was there in the trendy Loft Ristobar club, so you have to go in there to check it out! It’s like a mystery where the water is going to come from! Ha. Luckily for me, there was an employee washing her hands when I was in there too, and she gave me the trick spot.
Cheri’s Food Review
Like I said, 3 pm on a Wednesday is a great time to have 4 margaritas. They sent over 4 different kinds immediately so we were able to get down to business right away. On the left is the Frozen Margarita and on the right is the Pablorita (basic house margarita). I loved them both and thought they had the right level of alcohol-to-deliciousness ratio. The other two we tried were the Squeezarita and the Primarita, but I tend to like sweet, girlie drinks so those two were out of my palette’s interest. Ha! But I like that they have all the different choices based on how fancy you get with your Margaritas!
Also of interest: Happy hour is from 11 to 6 every day so that gives you plenty of time to pre-game.
Housemade tortilla chips and salsa are always a nice treat and free as a starter with every visit. The salsa is mild, but they have hotter flavors, plus bottles of Cholula on every table, so you can fix your own level of spice!!
The Don’s Sampler is for those of us who like to put ourselves in pain even before the entree section starts. Such a variety with this that everyone will be pleased. From left, clockwise, you get steak nachos, taquitos and flautas, chicken quesadillas and pickled jalapenos, queso blanco and pico de gallo (guacamole upon request)! Just one of these items could be enough for a small meal in itself, but with all four, you feel satisfied like you aren’t going to have to leave disappointed that you didn’t get a certain indulgence. No complaints here, this is a real-deal appetizer.
The Southwest Salad comes with all the above goodness: chipotle-honey bbq chicken and all the rest. If I were a huge fan of both cilantro and this barbecue sauce, I would have devoured this whole thing on the spot – there was a great mix of flavors and the lettuce was very fresh and crispy. Paul loved this salad! Mostly, I loved how well it photographed on that blue plate. And the chicken was tender and flavorful, which makes for a satisfying, hearty salad. But my favorite salad was the next one…
The Red River Salad was definitely my speed, even if it didn’t photograph as well as the other! :) There is grilled chicken with fresh avocado, tomatoes, grapefruit, onion and fresh lettuce. It was served with a Honey-Lime dressing, which was almost not even necessary with all these awesome flavors going on. This was one of my favorite meals of the Tasting and I have to put in a note about the seasoning on the chicken – it really turned juicy, great chicken into Wow Chicken (technical culinary term). Of course, it’s a secret blend of salty, savory ingredients, but it really complements the chicken in a moth-to-flame kind of way.
Here is a photo of the steaming amazingness that you get when you order the Fajitas.We were served all 4 kinds of meat to compare, and I just have to say that they were all flawless. Left to right, there’s shredded pork, steak, grilled chicken and shrimp. We started by tasting the steak but should have saved that for last because it was definitely the best, you know, if you’re into that soft, buttery, marinated, steak kind of thing(!). The pulled pork was juicy and tender and there was probably some of the mesquite-flavoring there as well – this wasn’t just boring old pork. We all know how I feel about the chicken and the shrimp was cooked perfectly, with that nice, springy shrimp texture and slight mesquite flavoring. Of course you get all the fixings to go along with it and make your own flavor profile to your heart’s content and another thing: Holy cow yum.
So I ordered the Fish Tacos because it’s one of my personal litmus tests for judging food in the area, but I can only say that they definitely aren’t a strong point here. They come with lettuce instead of cabbage, so you don’t get that satisfying cool crunch when you bite in. There was a nice seasoning used, their secret recipe Pecos seasoning, but it was inconsistent – either too much or not enough on the fish, which was cooked very well, however. The tortillas were the typical warm, housemade ones, but overall this dish was just not a great choice. But hey, who comes to Don Pablo’s for Fish Tacos anyhow?
And we saved the Four Amigos Enchiladas for last, by design. If you can remember back 256 years ago, when you started reading this post, you’ll recall that my Go-To meal here was always the Cheese & Onion Enchiladas. So of course we got that, plus ALL the other kinds as well to test them out (moderation is for wimps). Left to right you see the Spinach Poblano, the Beef, the Chicken and my beloved Cheese and Onion. The spinach and poblano flavor comes through well with a hint of warmth – curry possibly, all hiding underneath its blanket of cheese and white sauce. The beef enchilada was a little on the spicier side with a corn tortilla and a welcome camouflage of red sauce and cheese. Next is the cheesy, cheesy chicken enchilada, which brought back so many memories when my friend used to order this, and we’d exchange our customary taste “just to make sure yours is okay to eat”. But if that was memory lane, biting into mine was like stepping into the Delorian time machine. Don Pablo’s proved they still got it with this one: ooey, gooey cheese and hints of onion throughout, all underneath the red sauce and more cheese, of course!
Dessert is usually my favorite part of any Tasting, and the desserts here were no exception – just sliding from great to freaking spectacular. I’ve never had dessert at Don Pablo’s, and am kicking myself for not having found out about them earlier.
First up was the Chocolate Volcano, which here was a nice little treat. Normally it’s served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, and had we not been so overwhelmingly stuffed at this point, we definitely would have partaken in that, too. The chocolate sauce and the cake here are a bit lighter with more of a flour-y taste than a dark, gooey one, but I thought this was a nice change. Almost like pudding, yeah, the Bill Cosby kind.
Next stop: Sopapillas! They’re basically a plate full of pastry (deep-fried tortillas, I think) with a warm butter brandy sauce and powdered sugar over top! It’s a little greasy, yet still light somehow. But hey, this is not health food and you are well-aware of what you’re getting into. These remind me of street-fair Elephant Ears as a kid, but a WAY better version. They feel light enough but you still have to share it with someone else. I may or may not have uttered a sentence about wanting to start a relationship with these sopapillas, but I admit nothing, so you could never prove it. *glazed, dreamy look in her eyes*
The Iron Skillet Apple Pie was the last item of the night, but certainly not the least. It was incredible. The apples were perfectly tender, swimming in their sugary filling with soft, buttery pie crust enveloping the whole thing. This is a real sweet treat, and the same brandy butter sauce that made an appearance with the Sopapillas, makes a comeback here but with a special secret. Notice that brown crescent of the brandy sauce that has made it’s way along the right side of the skillet? THAT’S CARAMELIZED SUGAR, which formed from contact with the hot skillet! And if you can find the muscle to peel that off the skillet with your spoon, you have just unlocked the top secret, in-the-know treat that you will be craving as soon as it’s gone. I learned that from the staff, and with this knowledge, I feel like more of a complete person. You’re welcome. Paul made an astute observation here when he said he bet the dishwasher hates that caramel. Annoyed with Paul for ruining my moment of candy perfection, I take a short moment of silence to honor the dishwasher who must always deal with removing this hardened caramel!
Cloaked Restaurant Review
This is the part where I have an anonymous review done to critique the entire restaurant experience in a undercover way so that you can get a good idea of what it’s like for the typical restaurant-goer like yourself! It keeps us all honest!! Here’s what they said:
Walking inside here is like Don Pablo’s never left. It may be a little cleaner and newer than before, but the layout is exactly the same, and sitting in the open dining room still provides a view of the tortilla-chip station I remembered from years ago. Sitting down and having lunch was a little noisy since it’s completely open, but somehow, despite being busy, it’s not anywhere as loud as it used to be. Our server was a few minutes in reaching table, but from that point on, was very attentive and helpful, never letting us go empty or cold.
Most Mexican restaurants can be immediately judged by their tortilla chips, and Don Pablo’s did not disappoint us. The perfect free starter, they came with salsa that was fresh and delicious. Our server brought us a second dish of salsa to try, explaining that it was spicier and most people weren’t aware of it because it’s not immediately apparent on the menu, and that was a great extra. Both salsas were smooth and well-seasoned, and were an excellent starter. We opted for proper appetizers in Taquitos ($6.89) and the Border Dip ($5.99). I found the Taquitos to be well-done and enjoyed them more that way, and when paired with the salsa, were even better than when dipped in the queso dip it came with. The Border Dip came in a skillet as a yin-yang pattern of beans and queso with beef and pico de gallo in the middle. The queso was smooth and tasty, the refried beans were right on target, and it was a great way to start a Tex-Mex meal. Our main courses were also exactly what we had in mind. My sidekick chose the Chicken Fajita Burrito ($9.99), and she got an overstuffed burrito that delivered on our Mexican-food craving. The flavor was great, the seasoning was just right, and the portion… enormous.
I chose the Ultimate Tex-Mex ($13.29), which was a portion of ribs and a portion of chicken fajitas, because I really wanted to see how Don Pablo’s handled each distinct style. The fajitas were great and came with plenty of meat, vegetables and tortillas. In fact, when we left, there was so much left over the waitress gave us more soft tortillas to take with us. I was ready to be critical of the ribs, but I was pleasantly surprised. We had just been talking about how many places give you ribs loaded with more fat than meat, but these were thick, hearty ribs with lots of tender meat. Our desserts, though, were the foods that stayed in our memory. The Iron Skillet Apple Pie ($4.99) was a hot apple pie a la mode lying on a hot skillet in a pool of a caramel-brandy sauce that was simply decadent and amazing. The Chocolate Volcano ($4.99) was a close second, with a smooth bed of chocolate sauce surrounding a hot chocolate cake filled with chocolate sauce. Holy delicious.
Returning to Don Pablo’s after its absence was a great experience, and we were glad to see that the good things were still there. We were a little skeptical after reading reviews and hearing stories about poor service, but our experience was entirely positive, and our waitress bent over backwards to not only make us happy, but to also provide us with extra food, timely service and menu suggestions. For a simple but tasty Mexican dinner or lunch that is quick without sacrificing quality, and inexpensive without sacrificing portion size, Don Pablo’s is an easy choice to make.
Cloaked Review Ratings
|Food Quality & Menu|
Go to my Flickr account to check out my Don Pablo’s, Sarasota, FL, Restaurant Review images set to see the full set of pics.