On this week’s Happy Half Hour podcast…
Pablo Becker named his new restaurant Fish Guts. That’s the kind of humor and gall you need to make it in life. It’s gonna make me like you. It helps that he’s using the 90 percent local seafood, the best damn things pulled off the boats a few blocks from his Barrio Logan fish sandwich-and-taco shop.
“It’s crazy to me that you have the best seafood in the world right over there,” he says, pointing out of the SDM podcast studio window at the bay. “And 80-something percent of restaurants here import their fish.”
I bite his sandwich. Tell him it reminds me of a Filet-O-Fish if a Filet-O-Fish used fresh local rock fish and brioche buns and the best ingredients from local farms. And if the Filet-O-Fish, all due respect, was twenty or thirty times better. It’s a fantastic sandwich, beer-battered and slathered in a just-spicy-enough Mexican tartar sauce (seared serranos, Mexican herbs).
“My restaurant is like 500-square-feet,” he says. “It’s me, a plancha, and a deep fryer.”
That tiny space is Pablo’s comfort zone. After it all fell apart, this kind of heads-down cooking is where he found his groove again.
A San Diego native (his parents moved here from Mexico City), Pablo had been part of the opening team on Isla inside Vegas’ then-newly redesigned Treasure Island. It was widely hailed as one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state. He learned restaurant operations and cooking under his famous chef cousins, Patricio and Richard Sandoval.
Richard is one of the most revered Mexican chefs in the world, with 60-plus restaurants flung across the globe. In 2007, Pablo opened one of central San Diego’s first upscale, CIA-style Mexican restaurants, El Vitral. It was terrible timing, signing his lease at the top of the market when the economy was going nuts, and just months before that same economy took a floundering dive into a deep recession.
“After it closed, I was going through some stuff,” he says. “My cousin called me and said, ‘We’re opening a restaurant in Chicago, why don’t you come out for a while?’ I said, ‘Nah man I’m good.’ And he said, ‘No, your dad already bought you a plane ticket you’re coming next week.’”
Pablo went, figured he’d stay a month, brush the dirt off. He’d eat in their restaurant. He started bugging the cooks—nearly all first-generation Mexican-Americans—to let him cut a few things, tinker on the line. He told his cousin he was ready to get back in the game. His cousin pointed to one of the multiple restaurants they were opening, figured Pablo could run one of them. Be the boss. He was an operator, had all the skills.
“No, I want to be a line cook,” Pablo told him.
And for five years, a very good restaurateur just cooked.
“I learned more about my Mexican culture and roots from those guys in the kitchen than I had learned all my life,” he says. “It was the best five years of my life.”
Last year, he came home to San Diego. He opened Fish Guts—a simple, honest fish sandwich and taco shop in Barrio Logan from a guy with a hell of a pedigree. His mom occasionally comes down and helps out. Walk in, and you’ll probably see Pablo in that tiny space—his plancha, his fryer, his prep nook—just like the space he had as a line cook in Chicago, the space that brought him back.