Originally published in Maine magazine, July 2021.
Step into Pacifico in Saco, and you’ll instantly feel transported to somewhere warmer. A pink neon sign over the main entrance buzzes with Miami energy, and tall (albeit faux) palms reach up the weathered bricks of the former textile mill’s walls. A server delivers a whole fish, sizzling with citrus zest and fragrant herbs, to a table of awed diners while the bartender pours an enticing mix of rum and fresh juice into a tall glass and slides it across the bar.
Carlos Guzmán and Alejandra Herrera opened Pacifico in their hometown of Saco to showcase the diversity of foods in Central and South America. Guzmán, a native of Colombia, and Herrera, who moved to Maine from Chile 14 years ago, also own the casual Quiero Cafe, with two locations in Saco and Portland. At Pacifico, open since late November, Herrera says, “We want to show a better version of Latin food. It’s not only tacos and burritos, but so much more.”
Guzmán and Herrera envisioned opening a place they’d like to go to for a night of cocktails, music, and good food. Admittedly, the couple aren’t out at night much anymore since the birth of their son in late 2019. But Guzmán and Herrera are still at the restaurant every day, with help in the kitchen from Mexican-born chef Adrian Arvizu. Arvizu’s cooking has quickly made Pacifico a hot spot in the Biddeford-Saco area’s burgeoning dining scene.
Guzmán and Arvizu work together to develop the selection of “pan-Latin cuisine,” relying on Arvizu’s memories of his mother’s cooking and his time at Eventide Oyster Company, where he has been a chef for the past five years. The resulting menu takes diners to Peru with a buttery halibut ceviche or to a taqueria in Mexico with a tostada topped with an enticing mix of pickled cactus, tomatoes, onions, and queso fresco.
Other platos chicos, or small plates, take inspiration from Central America, such as the thick slab of Mexican queso fresco, which is grilled until delightfully browned, then spread with a sweet-savory garlic and onion jam. Mashed yuca, a staple of Colombia, is shaped into cheese puffs, fried, and served perched on a swipe of smoky pepper aioli.
Seafood is the thread that runs through the menu at Pacifico—the prevalence of seafood in Guzmán and Herrera’s home countries, which both border the Pacific Ocean (hence the name), fits well with Maine’s equal abundance. Ceviches eschew the typical chopped style and instead contain large pieces of hake or whole scallops and shrimp. Pickled red onion, radishes, and herbs add a welcome brightness to the dishes.
The pescado frito is the standout seafood entree: a whole branzini pan-fried until crisp and topped with mojo sauce—a mix of herbs, garlic, and citrus zest—that sizzles on the hot fish. Served with coconut rice and tostones (fried plantains), the dish is a hit with customers.
The meat-based entrees are also diverse in origin. Arvizu takes a New York strip steak and tops it with a bright, herbal, Argentinian-inspired chimichurri and serves a chili-braised pork belly over Cuban-style black beans and rice. Ají de gallina, a Peruvian stew and childhood favorite of Herrera’s, is slow-cooked pulled chicken that’s served in a warming sauce made from ají amarillo peppers over rice with walnuts, black olives, and a diminutive hard-boiled quail egg.
Desserts at Pacifico are made by baker Cristina Magnin, who puts a Latin American spin on chocolate lava cake with the addition of spicy chili peppers and a drizzle of dulce de leche. She soaks an airy sponge cake in sweetened milk and dots it with bruléed meringue to make a traditional tres leches cake.
Behind the bar, LyAnna Sanabria also relies heavily on traditional Latin ingredients for her cocktails. She works with the importer Craft Spirits Cooperative to stock the bar with intriguing artisanal liquors from Central and South America, such as pisco, mezcal, rum, and cachaça (the one domestic exception being Biddeford’s Round Turn Distilling coconut gin). Sanabria, an alum of Portland’s Chaval, sources produce for her drinks through Portland bodegas and Guzmán and Herrera’s trips to Boston markets. Once she’s acquired a rare ingredient like lulo, a tart nightshade fruit grown in Colombia, Sanabria makes sure none of it goes to waste by infusing it into spirits, creating syrups, and candying the fruit.
According to Sanabria, many customers aren’t familiar with all of the spirits or ingredients in a drink. But she is impressed by people’s embrace of the unknown, pointing to one of the menu’s best sellers, a take on a Brazilian caipirinha made with cachaça, lulo, lime, and sugar. “It’s got two words that nobody understands, but they’re still willing to jump in,” Sanabria says. The Rickey Martin, a boozy version of a lime rickey made with Bimini gin, elderflower liqueur, manzanilla sherry, tamarind, lime, and soda is also popular—“mostly for the name,” laughs Guzmán.
Between its lively environment, the warming Latin cuisine, and the draw of novelty after a long pandemic winter, Pacifico is making early waves in the greater Portland dining scene. It may not be the tropical vacation we dream of, but a meal at Pacifico still provides a much-needed escape.
Pacifico |120 Main St., Suite 254, Saco | 207.494.2776
Tongue in Cheek
Pacifico’s diners are enthusiastically embracing the culinary adventures contained on Guzmán and Arvizu’s menu. For instance, a recent dinner special was surprisingly popular: lengua de res, or grilled beef tongue. The small dish of thinly sliced beef tongue over hominy was a hit with diners. The kitchen went through 12 pounds of the stuff in a weekend—the equivalent of three whole cow tongues.