Monday, July 30, 2018

Don Pablo's Last Stand

It was Lexington, Kentucky in the late '90s. The local Chi Chi's was well into its final decline, and my  parents, who lived in San Diego years earlier, were in search of the next place where they could get an approximation of the Mexican food they fell in love with in Southern California. I was ten years old when they loaded me and my brother into the Taurus wagon for a weekend dinner at Lexintgon's new Don Pablo's. I remember being impressed with the restaurant's interior with its approximation of the Hollywood version of a Mexican town square. I also recall being amused at my straight laced father ordering something called a chimichanga. I remember nothing about the food I ate. My parents presumably felt the same way, because we never went back.

The first Don Pablo's was opened in Lubbock, Texas in 1985 by DF&R restaurants. The chain grew quickly, peaking at around 120 locations in the mid 1990s, making them the second largest full service Mexican chain restaurant in the US, behind Chi Chi's. The brand would eventually be acquired by Applebee's franchisee Apple South, who would go on to sell off their Applebee's franchises to focus on the Don Pablo's brand, and in turn, change their name to Avado. Things did not go as planned. Avado filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and again in 2007 as locations rapidly shut down. In 2008, Don Pablo's was acquired by Rita Restaurant Corporation, who attempted to expand the brand, but ultimately declared bankruptcy itself in 2016. Closures of Don Pablos locations have been happening regularly for more than a decade. With its string of acquisitions followed by bankruptcies, a person more superstitious than myself might speculate that the Don Pablo's brand is cursed. At the time of this writing, there are six Don Pablo's in operation, all of which are company-owned, but up until last week, there were seven.

Last Sunday, I stopped by the Cincinnati Don Pablo's for lunch on my way out of town. That very restaurant would be out of business by the following Friday. The closure came abruptly with no formal indications until the day of closure. Up until now, every place I've visited in my travels for this blog is still open for business. It was probably inevitable that I ended up eating at a place just before it closed for good, and it's not terribly surprising that this is the place where it happened.

The Cincinnatti Don Pablo's was housed in a tall brick building in the moderately trendy Rookwood Common shopping center. The building appears to have been heavily renovated to match what was Don Pablo's standard archetecture at the time. However, it's clear from the matching brick smokestack next door, a remnant from a long defunct tool and die plant, that those who designed the building wanted the public to believe it to be an unmodified vintage structure.

Cheap Menu side 1

Cheap Menu side 2

I walked through the building's faux vintage distressed front doors shortly after the 11 AM open time. A waiter grabbing menus from the podium mumbles in assurance to me that someone will be right with me. He's right, another employee, presumably the manager, seats me a minute later. I'm greeted in my booth by the same mumbly waiter. I order a Coke Zero, having seen it on the menu, and he mumbles that they don't have Coke Zero. I ask him for a Diet Coke, and he nods and disappears. When Mumbles returns with chips and salsa, and my beverage, I order a carnitas plate from the cheaply printed single page menu. While I wait for my food to arrive I try the salsa. It's somewhere between chunky and completely liquid. What chunks there are have the consistency of soggy paper. It's salsa from a jar, or more likely, a large industrial can. 

Something's ruining the illusion that I'm in Mexico. 

My surroundings were not unlike the Don Pablo's I remember from childhood. There's lots of stucco and faded-on-purpose painted signs on the wall. They really want to you feel like you're in a Mexican village in a B movie western, or some parody thereof. Were it not for the giant American flag hanging from the rafters of the place, I'd almost expect the in-famous El Guapo to make an appearance. Just as I'm quickly returned to reality when Mumbles shows up with my order, and awkwardly holds the plate in front of me without setting it down, forcing me to grab the unpleasantly hot plate myself. I guess it's hard to hire good waitstaff for a place that could shut down at any minute. Another waiter serving a family at a nearby table is wearing a Don Pablo's shirt three sizes too small and visibly dirty jeans. Still, Mumbles is quick to bring me a refill on my Diet Coke.

This is fine. 

The food looks decent enough. The rice and beans appear to be made from scratch, as are the tortillas. In fact, I notice another employee making tortillas at a station behind a windowed area, designed to be viewed by customers. It's a little gimmicky, but the tortillas are pretty good. There's a garnish plate with pickled onions, half an avocado, and way too much cilantro. The tacos I make with the carnitas, tortillas, and garnishes are pretty good, but no better than what I could get at a Qdoba or Chipotle.  A week after eating them, I remember nothing about the beans, which I take to mean they were not overly impressive or terrible. For those that insist that beans are inherently forgettable, I'll point you to my post about the West Branch, Michigan Ponderosa. The rice had odd bits of seasoning in it that stuck to specific points on my tongue and made it feel as if it was being stabbed by several needles. I didn't finish the rice. In general, the food was fine, not awesome, not terrible, but certainly not worth the close to $20 I paid for it including a decent tip for Mumbles.

My local independent Mexican restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat. It's owned and run by three generations of a Mexican-American family, who maintains a nice blend of authentic and pleasantly unique offerings. They have a large menu full of distinctive dishes that can't be found anywhere else. There's traditional, distinctively Mexican offerings like tender cactus and menudo, a beef tripe soup, as well as the typical burritos and enchiladas. Regardless of what you order, you'll get something that you can't find anywhere else for a decent price. They do exactly what Don Pablo's doesn't do, and it sets them apart from the chains and keeps me coming back. The remaining Don Pablo's locations all seem to be as visually striking as the recently closed Cincinnati restaurant, and it makes for a memorable, if a bit dated, atmosphere, but without a few innovative menu items to justify the cost of eating there, Don Pablo's can't be competitive with the quick service Mexican chains or the independent Mexican restaurants.

The chances of Don Pablo's making a comeback seem low. The fact that they've survived for this long seems like a fluke. I suspect they owe their survival to longtime rival Chi Chi's pulling the plug on nearly all of their US locations in 2004. With no franchisees to keep the brand alive after all the locations are gone, and with minimal value associated with the brand, Don Pablos as we know it may soon be gone. If you want one last Don Pablo's experience, you should visit your local location while you still can, and don't be surprised if it closes for good a week later.


  1. I really liked the Don Pablo's in Palmer, PA. It closed abruptly several years ago, not long after the nearby Chi-Chi's had also done so.

    Like you, we are fortunate to have a local, authentic Mexican restaurant.

    1. I'm hard pressed to think of what the biggest full service Mexican chain restaurant is these days. Maybe Chuy's or On the Border. It definitely seems like the independent places have filled the void left by Don Pablo's and Chi Chi's.

    2. Well I absolutely loved the don Pablos in Lexington, KY and wish it was still open. That's what prompted my finding this article tonight to see if there was a don pablos anywhere open still.

  2. my wife and i ate at the don pablo's in grand prairie, texas (now closed permanently) about 2 years ago. the food was, as usual above average and the service even better. the one item we always looked forward to the most when we ate there was the sopapillas with brandy butter sauce. i loved that sauce. if you were to drizzle that sauce over a pile of fried paper towels i would eat the entire platter full.

    such a pity.

  3. I remember eating a FEW lunches at Don Pablo's in Phoenix during the 90's. After moving to western NJ, I got so excited to see a Don Pablo's in Wiilow Grove, PA around 2003 or so. Not the same food at all.
    Apparently, people in the east prefer hamburger in their chimicanga's over shredded beef.

    1. I moved from San Diego, CA to New York City in 1980, and I can tell you the "quality" of Mexican food in NYC back then was sub-Taco Bell. There was a "Taco John's" on 5th and 40th, and couple overpriced "Mexican Fine Dining" places that specialized in laughably inauthentic Mexican food and fishbowl-sized margaritas.

      About a decade later, "Taco Fresca" Mexican fast-food places started opening up in the strangest neighborhoods in Manhattan, with authentic-tasting Cal-Mex food...and all-Chinese staffs! I never found out how on Earth that came about (the only thing weirder was this wonderful bagel place on 106th and Broadway, run by a Chinese family), but I was mostly too relieved to have decent affordable Mexican food to care, really.

      I don't know if it was Taco Fresca that shamed the competition, if enough Californians and Texans moved to NYC like I did, or if a sufficient Mexican population decided to take up residence in what used to be called "Spanish Harlem", but New York Mexican food's gotten a lot better in the past four decades. There is, or was, this great hole-in-the-wall taco place on 111th and Amsterdam that didn't even have a name outside of "Tacos", but made the best soft-shell corn tacos I've ever had.

  4. ¡Oh, ya has vuelto! ¡Bienvenido!

  5. I once ate at a Don Pablo's in Lafayette, Indiana of all places. The Purdue college crowd apparently loved it. The wait was close to 90 minutes and the food was very mediocore. I thought at the time that they were a Midwestern chain given the food quality. My cousin loved the Norwood location. Seems like they put a lot of money into their buildings.

  6. Don Pablo’s on 82nd st. In Indianapolis was absolutely phenomenal back in the 90’s. The food was fresh, they uses cloth napkins and the flautist were to die for. Everything tasted great and the place was packed. However; over the years the food quality, restaurant cleanliness, service, and subtle nuances began to deteriorate. This was my wife and my favorite restaurant. If only we could go back in time into the 90’s...

  7. Don Pablo's (in Lexington, KY, no less!) was my go-to restaurant in the late '90s/early '00s. I adored it. The salsa was fresh, vibrant, and made in house. I did a lot of globetrotting as a student, and, anytime I returned home after a months-long stint abroad, Mom would pick me up at Bluegrass Airport and ask me where I wanted to go eat. It was always Don Pablo's. After awhile, she just stopped asking. I'd get the El Matador combo and, as someone else pointed out, the sopapillas (seriously, I've never had any like that before or since--where can a guy get them???). Then, somewhere around '03 or '04, something changed. I noticed the salsa Not terrible by any means, but not nearly as fresh as before. There was definitely a ketchup-y undertone. The fantastic colors of red onion and cilantro were more muted. That was beginning of a long, steady decline. If you caught Don Pablo's at their nadir, I'm sorry for that. That's truly not how it used to be. The closest thing to Don Pablo's in their prime these days is Chuy's. Chuy's is great, but still...not quite there. Sigh.

  8. I worked at Don Pablos one winter. I use to stand at the back door and smoke and every one in a while a mouse would run in the door past my feet. And people wondered how we got black rice crispys in the old chip hopper.