In my pre-dining research of Aro’s Latin I read about small, shareable plates, over 100 varieties of tequila, expertly mixed cocktails, late-night happy hour and a stellar location on trendy Mission Street in South Pasadena. Seemingly all ingredients for an intimate and romantic interlude were there.

I excitedly saw an opportunity to combine a long overdue date night with my significant other and check out a new restaurant. I told her we’d head out around 9 and suggested she throw on the cocktail dress that she had been looking for an excuse to wear and I, well, tried to look presentable.

When we got to the restaurant, I quickly surmised that I had overshot my landing and it wasn’t quite the romantic venue that I had imagined, decidedly more casual than a place with a serious tequila bar and boasting high-caliber culinary chops should be. By no means is that a knock on the food or experience. Somewhere in the Aro equation there was a missed opportunity, as they could easily be a hotspot for late-night dining and drinks. The evening that we went the restaurant’s dining area was brightly lit and the air conditioning was blasting like it was a hot summer day. The vibe was more lunch rush than Friday date night. To Aro’s credit they are doing their best to move in that direction with the addition of deejays live mixing late weekend evenings.

The atmosphere of Aro features vibrant, sun-drenched colors and Aztec patterns subtly woven into the grays and browns of the wood bar tops and seating evoking traditional Chicano art and Latin architecture.

Aro is led by a team of culinary heavyweights. Owners Karan Raina and wife Candy Garcia Raina also own South Pasadena’s Radhika’s Modern Indian. The menu was created by the “goddess of mole” herself, Chef Rocio Camacho.

Raina is a master Indian chef. His wife Candy is Salvadorian. Together they traveled to Mexico and through Central America exploring and inspiring the Latin flavors that comprise the cuisine at Aro. Their travels are clearly reflected in the menu options, which span geography and cultures. From Argentine style empanadas, to El Salvadorian tamales and Oaxacan mole poblano, the bright, innovative Latin flavors shine through Aro’s crafted offerings.

I’m a glutton for choices; to me there’s nothing worse than leaving a restaurant wondering if maybe I didn’t choose the right thing. So Aro’s low-priced small plate options that allowed me and my significant other to test out a little bit of everything quelled my FOMO. The small plates range from $5 to $13 but most are under the $10 threshold. Small plates are a fantastic option for the diner with an adventurous palate, looking for robust, exciting flavors and something more substantial with cocktails but less filling than dinner. Small plates and tapas are a great date option allowing for an intimate sharing experience. I’m not sure I can oversell small plates: reasonably priced, carefully crafted, shareable, fun. The choices at Aro check every box.

The empanadas vegetarianas ($6) are fried, flaky and crusty bread pockets filled with squash, mushrooms, spiced mozzarella and salsa verde. If every restaurant had vegetarian options that were as delicious as Aro’s vegetarian empanadas I would go meatless tomorrow.

Another standout among the tastings, the esquites ($8), roasted sweet corn in a boat served with chipotle aioli queso fresco, is not to be skipped — all the flavor and fun of street corn with added elegance and panache.

With over 50 varieties of tequila on the menu at Aro, picking the right one can be overwhelming, especially as the differences in the varieties of tequila aren’t widely known or obvious the way the differences in ales, IPAs, and stouts are.

Fortunately, Aro is the mecca for tequila lovers and for tequila novices alike; it’s the closest thing you can get to a “brewery” experience. Aro carries four different types of tequila: Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, and Extra Anejo, with countless varieties of each.

In order to be considered pure, tequila must be from a blue agave plant grown in a designated area in Mexico. The types all occur in the aging process after distilling the juice of the agave plant.

Blanco tequilas are the freshest and least aged of the varieties, often used in margaritas and considered best for mixed drinks. Reposados are “rested” or aged anywhere from two months to a year in wood barrels and typically have a golden color. Anejos age for more than a year, take on a smoother flavor profile and an amber hue and are generally for sipping. Extra Anejos are aged for more than three years and considered among the finest spirits to be enjoyed slowly.

Drinking straight tequila might be new for some, so Aro’s master mixologist Sunny Hanna has designed some special cocktails around some of their favorite tequilas. As a Moscow Mule diehard, I had to give the Mezcal Mule ($12) a chance. It is made with Vida Mezcal, Blanco Tequila, fresh lime juice, ginger syrup and a ginger beer float. It’s a mule concept with a Latin twist, lively and refreshing.

Of course, the Anejos and Extra Anejos carry a higher price tag than their younger counterparts. At Aro, the Anejo options run from Oro Azul Anejo at $14 to Roca Patron Anejo at $26 and the extra anejos start at $20 for El Agave Extra Anejo all the way to $64 for the Partida Elegante.  

If tequila’s not your speed, or you (like many) have been scarred by a bad night with cheap shots, Aro carries an assortment of wine, beer and other liquor options. If you’re ready to shake it off and enjoy the adventure, Aro is the place to try, taste, sip, and savor the flavors of fantastically aged pure tequilas.

I’ll be heading back to check out their happy hour. With edible deals and discounted drinks, I’m eager to stop in to see Aro’s progress toward being the hip meet up spot its bones were built for. Aro has $5 Dos Equis and infused shots, and tacos and empanadas for only $3, great for college students like me who try to ball on a budget.