Long associated with Indigenous rituals of purification, palo santo (“holy stick”) comes from Bursera graveolens, a scrubby species of tree that grows throughout Central and South America. Like frankincense and myrrh, to which it is related, it has an intoxicating aroma thought to dispel negative energy and promote well-being—which is also the promise of Palo Santo (955 West Marietta Street Northwest), a chic new Mexican restaurant near the King Plow Arts Center. Those of us who write about food often focus on seeking out informal little joints and unheralded treasures. But, since it opened in September, I’ve heard Palo Santo described frequently enough as the “sexiest scene in town” to wonder if we’re overlooking diners’ desires for another kind of restaurant: one that dazzles its audience with a big show, creating a kind of collective, near-religious culinary experience.
At first glance, the pieces seem to be in place. There’s a fervor in the mostly young people who gather here, dressed to the nines and clamoring for a spot on the rooftop, or in a brilliantly proportioned dining room—not too big, not too small—that’s lit with a flair for drama. The giant disk of hammered copper behind the bar, the undulating fixtures like hula skirts made of thin agave fibers, the cozy midcentury-modern furniture: All work their magic to humanize an otherwise industrial space. With the dancing flames of a wood-fired grill visible in the small kitchen, the stage is set for delight.
The chef is Mexico City native Santiago Gomez, who rose to prominence in Miami, where he worked at Nobu before launching his own buzzy spots. His menu at Palo Santo is attractive, and most dishes look gorgeous. My favorite by far, a mushroom rice a server described to me as “in the style of a paella,” strikes just the right note of elegance, frizzled on the bottom and gorgeously creamy on top with delightful bouquets of tiny wild mushrooms. I also enjoyed the carne asada, slices of seared rare hanger steak scattered with vibrant herbs; it comes with a split bone marrow slicked with salsa molcajeteada. A whole head of cauliflower—slowly roasted on a string above the wood fire and topped with miso caramel and shredded leeks—is a fun dish for a table to attack with razor-sharp knives all the way to its crunchy, near-raw core.
But it feels like Gomez isn’t so much trying to crystallize the unique flavors of Mexico as weaken them for the sake of the audience’s presumably timid tastebuds. The richness of corn, the burn of chili peppers—neither manifests here. There’s something generic about dishes such as limp, lightly grilled shrimp and sliced avocado over tlacoyos, and tender octopus a la talla with a few diaphanous slices of watermelon radish. Patatas bravas, tossed with a pale chile de arbol mayonnaise at the bottom of a deep wooden bowl, have a wimpy taste and texture.
The housemade blue corn tortillas and tlayudas are particularly puzzling. They’re thin as cardboard and about as tasty, barely registering on the palate whether served with grilled branzino; used as a frustrating vehicle for scooping a wonderfully fresh and chunky guacamole seasoned with black volcanic salt; or layered with raw tuna and avocado in fussy little tostadas.
Palo Santo’s jewel-toned cocktails are well-made, though, and daringly garnished: Dehydrated pineapple balances above the glass for the Madre Selva, with La Luna mezcal, Aperol, and spiced honey; giant slices of grapefruit dipped in black salt cap a wondrously strong paloma boosted by grapefruit cordial. There’s even a serious mezcal cart circulating between the tables. If you climb the steep staircase leading to the rooftop, you’ll find a thumping scene combining clubby, Miami-style glamour (DJs on the weekends) with casual bites. On the whole, Palo Santo is a lot of fun—but hard to take seriously as a culinary enterprise, despite the whole team’s best efforts to convince us otherwise.
This article appears in our March 2023 issue.