Don Pisto’s is the best place you’ve never heard of. There’s no sign above the door. The walls of the dining room – exposed brick – are mostly barren of artwork, and the tables are bare, save tealights in tiny, earthenware cups. Clad all in black, the wait staff exhibit a collective stoicism normally reserved for funeralgoers, boyfriends dragged into fitting rooms, or grad students teaching their sixth semester of comp. Seating myself at a vacant table, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I knew nothing about the restaurant – strange, given the amount my friends and I discuss and read about food – and I felt an edge of anxiety that this evening’s meal might become a Dirgeathon.
Few things are better than fresh, salted chips and a cold beer.
“You’re going to love it,” Sabina reassured me, sinking a chip into a dish of tomatillo salsa. As we waited for our significant others, I scanned the menu: tacos, tortas, a few sides and seafood options. Very brief; no desserts. Flint-eyed, our waitress asked if we’d like drinks while we waited. I had a Pacifico with lime while considering my dinner options. Small though the menu is, decision-making was difficult. Should I try the carne asada tacos? Tortilla soup? The chicken tostada with shredded cabbage and crema? I wasn’t clear on what “Mexican street corn” was, but corn in any incarnation is fine by me. After several minutes of silent deliberation (and a few hearty pulls of beer), I chose the carnitas tacos (two per order), dressed with onions and cilantro and garnished with radishes, a blistered jalapeno, and a fat wedge of lime. My dining companions – Hook, Sabina, and Thomas – ordered (respectively) the carne asada tacos, the chicken tostada, and the braised lamb shank served over chickpeas with a side of tortillas.
Guacamole with onions and cilantro.
Here I am, putting the cart before the horse. Don Pisto’s is a small establishment with a tiny kitchen, which sits in the corner of the dining room, encased in glass and in full view of the diners. Our waitress warned us that our entrees might (read: would) arrive at different times; she recommended that we either order several small plates and share or that we get an appetizer. I saw no need for an appetizer – the chips, salsa, and creamy, oniony guacamole would hold me over just fine — but Hook ordered a plate of six oysters, brought out with a bottle of hot sauce. And guess what? I tried one.
The last time I ate a raw oyster was as an eleven-year-old. My family was visiting relatives on Long Island, and by some act of witchcraft or sheer trickery, my dad convinced me to try a raw oyster. (Note: even now, I’m not sure how my dad accomplished this. As a child, I was so averse to seafood that the smell of baking Van de Kamp’s made me queasy.) As you’d guess, my heretofore only other experience eating oysters was not a success. I have a faint memory of pushing the cold flesh around in my mouth, trying not to let it make contact with my teeth, holding back retches so that I wouldn’t embarrass my entire familial clan in what I remember as a fancy restaurant.
That was fifteen years ago. This is now, but the old apprehension welled up in my chest. When the waitress brought Hook’s plate out, I almost backed down. Then, wanting to save face, I considered trying an oyster smothered in hot sauce so that Tapatio would be the only thing I could possibly taste. But then, I made a mature decision: I would try an oyster plain, setting aside my lifelong prejudice against the food. If I didn’t like it – well, that would be fine. I’d wash down the bite with beer, eat a plain chip to cleanse my palate, and get on with the rest of my dinner. If I did like it, I’d have discovered a new food to introduce into my Range of Acceptable Appetizer Options (RAAO).
Hook loosened the oyster, letting it sit in its own briny juice. “Here,” he said. “You can either chew it or swallow it whole.” I took the shell and thanked him. The oyster was pallid, wet as an eye, domed as a yolk in its craggy, crenellated shell. I breathed deep, opened my mouth, and let the oyster slide down my throat. It was cold and slick, but not as fishy as I’d feared. I’m not a convert, but I could manage to eat another oyster if the situation required.
Carnitas tacos with radishes and a roasted jalapeno.
As promised, our entrees came out in waves. Hook’s and my tacos arrived first. For politeness’ sake, I waited a few minutes before taking my first bite. Tender, juicy, and free of visible chunks of fat, the pork was beautiful with the crisp white onions and cilantro – by far, the best pork I’ve had in months. The tortillas – warm, saucer-sized, and flecked with dark spots – were neither too greasy nor too dry. I would have liked to take some home in a foil pouch and eaten them with jam for breakfast the next day, to be honest with you, but I didn’t think this could be easily arranged. The lamb, too, was perfectly cooked, its richness offset by the bite of the hot sauce.
Extreme close-up: tacovision!
The meal waned; satisfied, I sat back in my chair and scanned the dining room: mostly couples and a few groups of businessmen sharing small plates. I’d finished my beer and, at Sabina’s suggestion, ordered a margarita. Since Don Pisto’s has no liquor license, the margaritas are made with chardonnay. Was I skeptical? Of course. The drink was recognizably different from its namesake, but pleasantly so – it retained the margarita taste but was far less acidic. Served just slightly chilled, its glass rimmed with coarse salt, it refreshed me after my meal. (Note: I wouldn’t mind such a margarita at the present moment.)
Don’t let Don Pisto’s absent signage and morose wait staff deter you: the food is fresh, well cooked, and modestly priced. The menu is small, but its contents change frequently, from what I’m told. Bonus: DP’s has recently made additions to their brunch menu, including “Aqua Fresca” Mimosas. I’m so there.