Though Pisto’s isn’t owner Pete Mrabe’s newest restaurant (his Chubby Noodle sequel recently opened in the Marina), it’s definitely the most under hyped. It originally opened as Pisto’s Tacos a little over a year ago, and Mrabe mysteriously shuttered the space after only a few weeks. Honestly, I didn’t remember it reopening until seeing it packed during a recent walk down Grant Avenue. A date night with my wife ensued.
Crunching our way through a third bowl of chips, it was obvious that we weren’t in for a ho-hum taqueria meal. Not your standard issue, half-stale chips, these thick-cut specimens were fresh-fried and heavy on the salt, the way I like them.
Alongside was a ramekin of pale green tomatillo salsa with enough zing to create anticipation for what was to come. Mexican pop music blared, creating a bit of a thump, and cans of Corona were capped with wedges of lime. Literally everyone in the restaurant, servers included, appeared buoyant.
If you’re hoping to fill up on overstuffed, greasy tacos for cheap, Pisto’s isn’t a good fit.
Tacos here were three-bite affairs that reeked of quality rather than quantity. Double tortillas bursting with corn flavor contained a small mound of crackly al pastor, rendered faintly sweet by pineapple drippings.
Equally good was a version featuring three large, briny shrimp (no mystery crustaceans here) livened up simply with butter and citrus.
Continuing with a street-food theme, we shared a few ears of corn, lightly lathered with mild queso fresco and mayonnaise. Again, the high caliber of the star ingredient differentiated this dish from the norm as each kernel seemed to pop with sugar.
Though I doubt that a bacon-marinated hamburguesa qualifies as authentic south-of-the- border fare, Mrabe wisely transported the popular item over from Don Pisto’s, his original spot around the corner. It’s hard to go wrong with ground chuck literally marinated overnight in bacon, onions and, yes, bacon grease. Served on a toasted bun from neighboring Italian French Baking Company, this burger deserves a mention in any “best of” conversation – though I wish that it wasn’t served well-done.
A follow-up Saturday brunch went a bit clunkier. The waitstaff was still almost impossibly nice, but the kitchen, feeling the brunt of a dining room that went from empty to full in an instant, fell behind and got a bit sloppy. Guacamole desperately needed more salt and lime (we fixed it ourselves) to compete with those same amazing chips served alongside.
And after a 25-minute or so wait, we attacked a generous portion of chilaquiles only to find that it was basically eggs thrown on top of a pile of chips and drowned in a mild, watery sauce. It was more of a soup than the classic hangover breakfast.
Faith was restored during a final visit, in which a piping hot, cast-iron platter of wild mushroom enchiladas bathed in a clove-scented red gravy soothed the soul on a chilly evening. Served with greaseless refried beans and perfectly cooked rice, this dish was the embodiment of San Francisco’s sit-down Mexican restaurants of yore.
Though the kitschy art depicting the devil and a masked, naked woman playing cards might lead one to believe otherwise, Mrabe has the good sense not to mess with tradition when it comes to his food.
Location: 1310 Grant Ave. (at Vallejo Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 317-4696, www.pistostacos.com
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Price range: $3.25 to $19
Recommended dishes: Al pastor taco ($3.25), camarones taco ($3.25), hamburguesa ($11), enchiladas ($15)
Credit cards: Visa, Master Card