Not that it can't stand on its own merits, but it seems best to introduce Juan Pablo's Mexican Restaurant by explaining its familial link to other local businesses. Owner Juan Pablo Sandoval's sister Rosy operates 15-year-old La Carreta nearby, while his mother Nico's sister is Rita Real of Wraps by Rita. Other cousins and uncles operate a few west-side Mexican import stores.
While many menu items will feel familiar, the former El Poblano (whose sign oddly remains on the shopping center marquee) is anything but, with a wall punched through into a bright adjoining space that's been artfully done up at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Sandoval wears all hats here, disappearing from the floor to cook his mother's Mexico City-born recipes all from scratch, returning to drop plates with Latex gloves sometimes still on, and generally giving warm service.
In light of a liquor license still pending, it's best to avoid the horrifically synthetic and sweet Tamarind Mexican soda ($2.25) in favor of the house-made goods ($2.50): only slightly less sweet, but pleasant, cinnamon-and-vanilla-essence horchata, or frozen-fruit agua frescas with, surprise!, added sugar. Our pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe and tamarind flavors all proved equally enjoyable.
Chips, which would be better saltier and warmed, come with a basic mild pico relish, but Sandoval is happy to bring an array of diverse, tomato-based hot salsas by request, which are meal highlights where incorporated. A dark habañero sauce (from dried chilies) delivers serious fire, followed by a cilantro-onion-jalapeño blend, then a vibrant, orangey-red chile de árbol.
One of the only two items to remain from El Poblano's menu is the El Salvador-style pupusas ($2.25 each), made from not-too-mushy masa meal flattened into small plate-sized pancakes and served with an oregano-forward, vinegary cabbage-carrot slaw (called curtido) and thin, mild tomato sauce. Each is stuffed with mozzarella and Monterey Jack cheeses that undergo a predictably nice melt on the flattop and embrace fillers like chorizo (nice) and chicharrón (nicer). Big, starchy yucca root hunks and tough but flavorful, salty carnitas cubes, both deep-fried, comprise the other Salvadoran dish, the Yuca con Chicharrón ($6.95), which benefits from the aforementioned hot salsas.
That same meat, pulled and fried crispier, fills the Mole Verde Pork Burrito ($8.25). Two of our four eaters didn't care for it, and at first I didn't either, but the pasty tomatillo-jalapeño-cilantro sauce quickly grew on me until I professed love on the last bite. The highly satisfying Chicken con Mole Burrito ($8.25) offers the chocolate-infused sauce most people associate with mole, boasting banana peel, five different peppers and a host of other inputs.
Camarónes borrachos (drunken shrimp, $11.25) could be softer, but pop with another spicy, multi-chili, thick red sauce, while the slick, mushy egg battering of the chile relleno plate ($9.75) pales when compared to crispier renditions. Plainness pervades the huevos rancheros ($5.45), though the side rice and beans on all these plates are perfectly proficient.
Sweetness returns with better-than-average cinnamon churros ($3.50); a fun, cinnamon-strong Cheesecake Chimi ($4.95), with graham crust and rich filling deep-fried in a flour tortilla; and the slightly healthier, semi-savory fried plantains with tangy crema ($4.50).
In sum, Juan Pablo's distinguishes itself plenty from other restaurants of its ilk. A 15-plus-year run of its own is hardly out of the question.