When it came to his vision for just the right restaurant in Pacific Beach, Mark Oliver asked himself a couple of rhetorical questions. “People want to eat healthy,” he recalled thinking at the time, “and what is the image that San Diego has? Mexican and seafood. And what can you do that combines those types of food?”
The answer to the second question, which turned out to be restaurateur Oliver’s inspiration, is Pueblo. Serving what he calls “Baja Coastal” cuisine, the restaurant and bar located in the upscaled, remodeled digs of what once was the China Inn on P.B.’s Hornblend Street, opened last November and has been steadily building a following of locals and visitors ever since. The airy, contemporary venue with its soothing Southwestern accents includes first-floor patio seating, and two bars, one indoors and the other on a rooftop deck where by day customers can bask in the sun.
“I tried to do something that would feel like a Baja resort in terms of design,” said Oliver, who is operator and managing partner in Pueblo’s ownership group. He calls Pueblo’s ambiance “casual sophistication. People come in shorts and flip-flops. But you’re not out of place if you are dressed up.”
Oliver, who was born and raised in San Diego and who earned a degree in accounting from San Diego State, is not out of place in the restaurant business. For 20 years he was a partner with George Hauer in the perennially popular George’s at the Cove in La Jolla before deciding to strike out on his own. After six years at the helm of the Randy Jones All-American Grill in Mission Valley’s Hazard Center, Oliver “started looking for something else to do” by mid-2014.
“I hung out in P.B. a lot,” said the La Jolla resident, “and felt the area was underserved. I decided Pacific Beach could use a place that was more food-forward, more sophisticated.” After assembling a group of investors, Oliver located the China Inn space, which had closed. Oliver’s group purchased the shuttered eatery’s liquor license and then spent two years rebuilding and remodeling at a cost he estimated at around $3.5 million.
Oliver was up for the challenge. “I had a chance to design something from scratch,” he said. “My vision for the restaurant was that it would be an adult venue in Pacific Beach. We’re not designed to compete with the bars that serve food. We had no ambition of being a nightclub. This is a nice place to come to eat, drink and relax with an adult clientele.” For the youth demographic that is so prominent in the P.B. area, Pueblo is “a date night place,” Oliver said, emphasizing that the majority of his customers are late 20s, “young professionals on up.”
Though not located on the heavily trafficked (by cars and pedestrians) Garnet Avenue to the north, the 8,000-square-foot Pueblo boasts “parking all around us,” Oliver said of the location one block off Garnet and one block off Mission Boulevard. “I thought this was a great place to be. I could not have done this on Garnet and gotten the same crowd.”
But location aside, every new restaurant is judged by its cuisine, and it’s this “Baja Coastal” menu of which Oliver is most proud. “What we’re doing in the culinary world is known as ‘Baja Med’ (as in Mediterranean) – contemporary Mexican food with Italian, French and Spanish cooking styles, techniques and recipes,” he explained. “It’s the influence of those four cuisines.
“We’re not an Old World Mexican restaurant. I tell people where we are different is beans and rice don’t come on every plate. We’re seafood-driven and we’re chef-driven. The menu changes all the time.”
Driving that cuisine, if you will, is chef Eduardo Rosales, who is originally from Santiago, Chile, and who, Pueblo’s website recounts, began cooking at 8 years old when he did so for his grandparents. For more than a dozen years, Rosales was chef instructor at Mexico’s Culinary Art School, which is based just across the border in Tijuana. “When he heard what I was doing (at Pueblo), he was super excited,” remembered Oliver, “because Baja Med was what he was doing.”
A glance at Pueblo’s extensive menu confirms Oliver’s description of the cuisine as a bold bringing together of Mexican and seafood. Its dinner entrees from the sea, for example, include a succulent lobster prepared in the Puerto Nuevo style; Shrimp Santiago prepared with spinach pasta, peas, pea-chive sauce, Parmesan and mesquite bacon; and Salmon Sur that incorporates Poblano Salsa with quinoa, shitake and enoki mushrooms and fresh vegetables. And, in line with Oliver’s insistence on all dishes being “fresh fresh fresh,” Pueblo serves up a daily market fish dish, fresh as can be.
You’ll find on Pueblo’s menus some items familiar to Mexican restaurant-goers, such as carne asada, carnitas and even tacos, but each one receives Chef Rosales’ eclectic touch. The restaurant is also proving popular for its agave-inspired cocktails, margaritas and sangrias.
Now, about that Pueblo name …
“I needed a name that said ‘Mexican’, for one,” Oliver said. “When you look at the history of San Diego and how it was settled by the Spanish, there was a system of settlement: the church, the presidio and the pueblo, which was the village, the community.”
It’s that feeling of community, so important to the identity of Pacific Beach, that Oliver aims to nurture at Pueblo.
Pueblo, 877 Hornblend St., Pacific Beach. (858) 412-3312. Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. daily; dinner 4-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. www.pueblopb.com