When Paseo abruptly closed back in November, 2014, Seattle sandwich lovers sobbed. This brash little eatery (actually two eateries, in Ballard and Fremont) had developed a huge reputation – a nationwide reputation – for great Cuban-style sandwiches since it opened in the early 1990s. Owner Lorenzo Lorenzo, taken down by a labor dispute, went bankrupt. The next month, the restaurant’s name and assets were bought in auction; and buyer Ryan Santwire reopened in January, promising the same menu, many of the same staff, and the same outstanding bread from Macrina Bakery. In fact, he pledged that he wouldn’t run out of bread mid-lunch as was common in Paseo’s early days.
So what is all the fuss about? It is about marinated roast pork cooked until butter tender and piled in great large chunks into the capacious maw of toasted-crisp baguettes; it is about thick leaves of onion that are sautéed low and slow so they soften and turn caramel sweet, becoming ribbons of succulence so compelling that one popular meatless sandwich on the menu is, quite simply, a heap of onions, greens, peppers, and spice. Paseo’s appeal also is about smoke-cured ham, meaty Tiger prawns, grilled-and-roasted skin-on chicken thighs, and great slatherings of garlicky aioli. Our Seattle friend Kelly even clued us in to the delights of the kitchen’s tofu sandwich in which garlic tapenade elevates soy protein to a state of meat-like deliciousness.
While superb sandwiches are the main reason people love Paseo, passion for it also arises from a rollicking, rough-and-tumble ambiance. It is truly a shack with such limited seating that most customers eat outside on the sidewalk, in their cars, or somewhere else they can get comfortable with food that is tremendously, unavoidably messy and drippy. Place your order at the counter and pay (the new ownership now takes credit cards!), then wait for your number to be yelled at full volume above the inevitable din of the little dining area, at which point it is your job to fetch the freshly-made and ready-wrapped food. Cramped quarters intensify not only the noise, but the smell from the kitchen, which is just behind the order counter, sending seductive aromas of roasting pork and cooking onions out to coil among customers. The smell of Paseo is a perfume that permeates clothing for hours after the meal.
Note: Paseo has a second location at 1760 1st Ave. S, in Seattle. (206-420-7781)