It was something like 8 months ago when I first heard that Público, a Latin-American taberna (tavern) with a focus on wood-fired dishes, was opening next door to The Good Pie in the Loop. I have an affinity for food cooked over a wood fire - just smelling it brings me back to summer camp in Wisconsin. That smokey, campfire flavor adds an element to dishes that you can't get any other way and, to me, it can't be beat. Plus, Mango aside, St. Louis sorely lacks any upscale Latin American restaurants.
I should have taken more interior shots of the restaurant, but Público's design by Space Architects is beautiful, modern, and helps set the standard for what future St. Louis restaurants should look like. The bar is the restaurant's focal point, with its patterned and backlit facade. Opposite the bar and above the booths are the wooden 'trees' you can see below, reaching out into the restaurant.
As impressive as the front is, my interests are in the kitchen. I knew the hearth would be the kitchen's main cooking hub, but I had no idea how massive it would be. You could throw a whole pig in there and roast it. To say I was impressed with it would be an understatement. The bottom picture was taken from the soon-to-open chef's counter, where you can watch Mike Randolph and his team make the magic happen.
The menu is split into 5 sections: crudo (raw dishes), Platos Pequenos (small dishes), Arepas (corn "pancakes"), Tacos, and A La Parrilla(grilled).
Wanting to try an item or two from each section, we started with the Cobia Crudo, a meaty whitefish served raw with crispy plantain chips, strands of chili for heat, and an aji amarillo, ginger and lime puree.
I've complained about cobia in the past, but I truly enjoyed it raw, which is similar to my feelings about tuna. I have no interest in cooked tuna, but I'm at my happiest eating some otoro. The dish reminded me of something I'd eaten Beau McMillen's Elements at the Sanctuary in Phoenix, which is a compliment. It's a simple dish, but the flavors are strong.
Our Plato Pequeno was the Baby Octopus, a much more delicate dish that I expected. The baby octopus are braised in tomato and citrus then grilled, leaving them with a soft texture and a smokey bite reminiscent of bacon. Green olive mayo, garlic, and lime complete the dish. As bold as those flavors are, the dish is quite subtle. All the flavors meld together beautifully.
Shredded Duck Gizzard Arepas, as colorful as a Day of the Dead calavera, followed. This was my first time eating duck gizzards; they had the texture of slow cooked brisket and the gamey flavor of duck, which I liked. A bite of the meat with cilantro, queso fresco, chipotle morita peppers, and the pillowy corn arepa all together led to me devouring the whole thing. More than anything, the flavors were comforting. It tasted like something you'd get at a home cooked meal, like braised beef with polenta, just elevated a bit more.
Fish tacos have become a staple of Mexican restaurants, but more often than not, they leave me disappointed. You either have to deal with greasy fried fish or overcooked grilled fish. Publico's Pescado Blanco avoids both of these by smoking the whitefish. The result is a flakey, wonderfully flavored fish that is unlike any other in St. Louis. It is the Mexican counterpart to Old Standard's smoked whitefish croquettes, or as we joked about during our meal, the standard fish taco's Jewish cousin. The handmade tortillas are given a smear of roasted jalapeno cream cheese and it's all topped off with crispy fried shallots.
The oft-mentioned star of Publico's menu is their Al Pastor taco, something I recently wrote about for Sauce Magazine. True al pastor is seasoned pork piled high, like gyro meat, then topped with a hunk of pineapple and cooked near a flame. The result is a juicy and crispy outer layer and a tender inside. The most authentic and my favorite in town remains the weekend taco stand at El Morelia Supermercado, but these come in a close, close second.
Their meat is deeply flavorful. It's smokey and tender, enjoyable spicy, and has hints of sweetness. Served with a fruity guajillo chili and crema sauce and charred onion salsa, this is a taco not to be missed.
When I see huitlacoche offered, I have to get it. In English it goes by the unattractive name of 'corn smut', but don't let that name put you off to it. When used properly, it adds this earthy umami flavor that is most comparable to truffles. The Hongos tacos, a vegetarian option, are made up of oyster mushrooms, huitlacoche, cucumber, radish, goat cheese crema, and charred onion salsa.
If there was one dish that I would declare as a true "must try", it would be the Spot Prawns. Two giant prawns are grilled over the wood flame, then topped with smoked jalapenos and freeze dried mango. At its base is an exceptional sauce made with fish stock, lime juice, smokey chiles, and a hearty helping of butter. Make sure you ask for some bread with this - you're not going to want to leave any of the sauce behind.
Needless to say, I was very impressed with my first meal at Publico. Chef and owner Mike Randoph is obviously obsessed with what I'll call complex simplicity. Both at Publico and at The Good Pie, Randolph makes delicious dishes using only a few ingredients. The food was spot on and the atmosphere was fantastic. Any time I leave a restaurant and consider going back the next day to finish off the rest of the menu, I know I've come upon something special. Expect a revisit post soon.
Add this to your "need to try immediately" list.
St. Louis, MO 63130