Pacifico is a pretty punchy place, or that’s what it feels like it’s supposed to be. Its bright orange walls are laced with stripes of blue. Drawings of little fishes swim along these stripes, or perhaps they’re tadpoles, or just a series of swirls in unapologetic reds, yellows and greens. Early afternoon sunlight filters through wide windows. It seems as if all is bright, punchy and well. The flavors, one might expect, should match.
In the trifecta of Latin American-inspired restaurants that hugs the block on Crown between High and College (Oaxaca, Pacifico, and Rubamba), competition is particularly fierce. Even without the prix fixe menus, which you find for $18 during restaurant week, each restaurant is already pressured to distinguish itself from the others. Rubamba excels at the arepa. But Pacifico and its neighbor Oaxaca, compete with surprisingly similar cuisines: traditional Latin American fare with a modern twist.
The questions that follow, naturally, are: What is the twist? Where does it come from? And why? Too often, fusion cuisine is blindly taken up by lazy chefs who have refused to put in the effort to perfect a time-tested cuisine. Instead, they devise their own cuisine as a shortcut to a niche market of perky foodies who always want something new. Instead, why not either devote yourself to one camp or the other: tradition or innovation?
Chef Rafael Palomino calls his cuisine “nuevo Latino.” The “Latino” element, of course, is clear. At times, the “nuevo” element is far murkier. One appetizer, the Argentinean empanadas, is an example of such. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a treat. A coupling of braised sirloin and raisins lends the fluffy appetizer a characteristic sweetness. We’re told that Pacifico’s innovation is replacing the traditional flour-based crust with a cornmeal-based one. But that comes as a surprise, given that cornmeal empanadas are a staple in both Colombia and Venezuela.
Another seemingly Latino dish was the tilapia con cubierta de platano, or the plantain-crusted tilapia with shrimp enchiladas. A fish, well cooked and flaky, was perched delicately on two yellow corn tortilla rolls. The green mole sauce with its peculiar but nevertheless tasty bitterness bound the whole dish together to great success. But the combination of mole, plantains, salsa and enchiladas is fairly common and doesn’t quite evoke “nuevo.”
The other half of the meal was neither “nuevo” nor “Latino.” The shrimp and corn chowder was chunky and creamy, like chowders should be, but left hanging the question of what a Latino chowder might actually be, especially if its flavor profile is reminiscent of one commonly found in the Davenport dining hall.
The emparedado de pollo was a chicken sandwich. And, as chicken sandwiches come, this fell very snugly into the category of most chicken sandwiches. Grilled chicken, arugula, avocado and blue cheese are almost exactly what one would expect when one orders a chicken sandwich — especially if you realize that “emparedado” just means “sandwich.” There might’ve been promise of a hint of Latino flavors in the smoky paprika fries, but somehow they seemed to lack both smokiness and paprika.
Thus far, this review might discount the simple fact that lunch at Pacifico is a great bargain. Unlike other establishments around New Haven, portion sizes and ingredient quality aren’t compromised for the sake of restaurant week. Not to mention, the food is good, if not inventive. It’d be unjustified to dismiss the menu as entirely uninteresting. After all, the meal did begin with that red salsa dip: a balance of Latino roasted red peppers and Italian sundried tomatoes, an almost tongue-in-cheek demonstration of nuevo Latino culinary ingenuity.