Jacobo’s new downtown block has gravity. But he hardly seems to notice. He goes his own way, something evident from the start.
Open the front door, and your gaze lifts above a host counter and into a small, partly open kitchen. It’s too cramped for even a walk-in fridge. Jacobo’s freezer, too, only has real estate for Frites Street fries and ice cream. And there isn’t space for draft taps, though Anhelo spreads through the creaky wooden bones of an old bar. Prior to opening, Jacobo did much of the refurbishing himself, painting walls, laying flooring, and wiring lights in the attic. The Silva House’s general layout is preserved (as law requires).
Anhelo retains that dinner-party feel. Service is casual and human, tables spill from the porch to the dooryard, and the menu rotates based on what Jacobo feels like cooking. His food is best — and most accordant with the neighborhood’s culinary ingenuity — when it has the most whimsy.
Cauliflower is roasted, buttered, and impaled with a steak knife. The use of anchovy is blunt, but if you like the salty fish, you’ll find yourself dragging florets through the plate’s pool of butter touched by Marcona almonds and mint. A plate of short rib fries feels callow, but fries are hot and meaty, and wine-braised beef is tender and torn into oyster-size chunks.
Jacobo’s take on Caesar salad ventures deeper into the slightly Seussian, twisting expectations and ratios. Inspired by Caesar’s bites of cheesy croutons, Jacobo distributes crunch to every surface of the salad. A blizzard of panko breadcrumbs and grated Pecorino nearly eclipses all green. In a way, the cheese morphs the salad into something beyond. I don’t know that it improves the original, but the result is a fun remix.
Wrapped up in that potential is his attention to the environment. Rather than junking old wine, he uses it for braising. He trades carefully managed kitchen compost to Grace Farms in Chandler, and gets microgreens in return. In a warming world, this is the kind of mindset a young chef needs to have. Anything less is too little.
Like Anhelo’s starters, mains have peaks and a few valleys.
Jacobo features a rotating pasta special. One night, it was long-strand noodles with short, frilly ribbons of guanciale. A sauce made from pasta water, cheese, chives, and rendered guanciale fat didn’t venture too far beyond the flavors of Alfredo. The pasta was fine but nothing cosmic — about the level of what you could make at home with some fluency on a hand-crank machine.
A branzino entree is more fully bulletproof. Three medium-sized fillets lean over a bed of tender peas and cannellini beans. The beans are soaked in an adobo that has a sturdy backbone of chile heat, the soft legumes foiling the crispness of the branzino skin. Perfectly cooked mussels jiggle on the sides, slick with bright adobo.
Don’t miss dessert, arguably the best course here (worth checking out even after omakase or pizza nearby).
Granitas and pavlovas with pickled strawberries rotate in and out by season and whim. They revolve around a menu stalwart: a honey-striped quenelle of salted caramel ice cream, pulled in many beautiful directions by caramelized banana, coffee, and chocolate, but most of all by the wildly potent flavor of graham crackers. This staple from the pop-up stays a big winner.
Though Jacobo has serious neighbors and occupies a serious space, he retains an endearingly casual, playful thread. You can tell this young chef has fun. He is slowly settling in, starting to winnow closer toward his culinary identity, and plating food that can be pretty tasty. If he can hone his menu and tighten a few dishes while retaining what makes him different, his free approach may make him a fixture of the downtown dining scene for years to come.
Anhelo628 East Adams Street
Summer hours: Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m., Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.
Watermelon salad $10