PASEO, LOCATED IN the heart of upper Fremont, sits tucked into a tiny nook, and with the entrance on the side of the building, there's a fitting Third-World air to the space. Paseo's consistently laudable sandwiches and superb dinner entrées warrant multiple visits, and the moderate pricing makes it even easier to come back. Sitting over our food, we couldn't help but wonder how this lovingly and stylishly prepared food might draw in a more uppity clientele. Our eight-dollarish dinners could easily pull in 15-18 bucks in fancier digs, and this observation left us basking in our status as full-on value-sniffers.
Sandwiches are the heart and soul of Paseo. The other stuff is good, but the sandwiches carry the place. There's no losing in choosing between the pork, chicken, and prawns, although each has its share of loyal followers. We went with the Prawns ($6.25), and the sandwich came, as always, packed with vigorous flavor and composed of the customary mix of fine bread (a toasted and freshly dusted roll from Macrina bakery), nicely-grilled prawns, fat slices of grilled onions, and lots of deep-green cilantro, all sauced with a seasoned mayo. The way they build 'em at Paseo, a sandwich is more of an incident than a meal; the separation between food and diner blurs, and you get right down in it. Sure, your sandwich might squirt on you, but you're part of it, and maybe this is the way eating is supposed to be.
The sandwiches are available until 5:00, but they'll make one for you later if they still have the fixings on hand. After 5:00, dinners mount the stage and present a more elegant face. All the dinners come with gorgeous black beans, bright white rice, a small salad with punchy dressing, and a vegetable (corn on the cob on this visit). The Half-Chicken ($7.25) was roasted, then finished on the grill, and glistened with a crunchy finish. Paseo's unparalleled marinades kiss every sandwich and dish on the menu, and suffuse the chicken with a sweet and slightly spicy flourish. With one R. Lorenzo (formerly of the now-defunct Isabelle) at the helm, spicing seems purposeful and goal-oriented, adding an air of maturity to this already splendid fare.
After such consistently high performance, Paseo puzzled us with the Grilled Pork ($8.25). Billed as "marinated and grilled tenderloin," the ultra-thin and apparently processed (either pummeled with a tenderizing hammer or run through a cubing machine) piece of pork was all exterior, and looked like no pork tenderloin we'd encountered before. As always, it was flavored and grilled flawlessly, but it was as if someone had stolen the center of the meat, leaving us with only a tasty shell. Had the kitchen been victimized by a heart-of-the-pork thief? We were left to wonder.
Scallops in Cilantro Sauce ($8.75) snapped us back to where we once belonged. We chose the 3-out-of-5 spiciness level, and found the dainty scallops pleasing and exuberant. One of Paseo's finest features is its marriage of from-the-heart food preparation with obvious concern for food presentation. Spotted with small pieces of red pepper and green cilantro, the bountiful (without being gluttonous) mound of white discs imbued a festive, pre-holiday aura, and their warm spiciness furthered the holiday theme. As with the other entrées, the beans' proud flavor evoked centuries of tradition, and mixed with the rice in an exceedingly friendly fashion. Although our corn's over-boiled softness was slightly disappointing, the sunny yellow half-ears added colorful variety to the plate. The salad's crisp greens were coated with a limey and sweet vinaigrette, creating a perfect piling vehicle for finishing our plate's small pieces of chicken, pork, or scallops.
We've enjoyed the roasted chicken thighs before, but we arrived too early on this visit and chose not to wait the half-hour for them to finish in the oven. The large and succulent thighs carry all the marinating marvel of Lorenzo's other dishes, and it might be worth your while to call and find out when they're coming out of the oven, then time your visit accordingly. Dining at Paseo can be a little crowded, but the giant view of Fremont Avenue provides plenty of fun people-watching. Paseo also handles take-out orders with aplomb and a smile, and their food might even taste just a little better when eaten on a park bench or under a tree.
Paseo, 4225 Fremont Ave N, 545-7440. Tues-Thurs 11:30 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30 am-10 pm, Sun noon-9 pm. $