Hamburguesas in Margharitaville (and mussels with housemade chorizo) -- this bustling little spot brings adventurous Mexican to North Beach
DINE Not all restaurants have mantras, but Don Pisto's must be "our kitchen is small." It's what we heard over and over from our server. Actually, we didn't hear her; we just read her lips as best we could. When Don Pisto's starts to fill up — and, being snug, it fills up quickly — it becomes as noisy a restaurant as I've been in. If you've ever stood near the end of a runway as a fully loaded 747 roared into the sky over your head, you'll have some idea of the decibels, which reach such levels as to become a fourth dimension. I was deafened. Maybe that was a mercy.
Food chic has migrated outside, to trucks, in the past few years, so Don Pisto's (which opened late in 2009) represents a countertrend of sorts. It's a food truck, or at least the personality of a food truck, implanted into a handsome old building of exposed brick walls. From its trio of bordello-red lights along the sidewalk to its nicely burnished wooden tables and chairs and its youthful crowd, it's about as visually appealing a place as could be. All it needs is a Mute button. (Food-truck chic, incidentally, strikes me as an odd development in the senescent years of petroleum, but it does suggest the profound American attachment between eating and motor vehicles. Fifty years ago, people were thrilled to drive to McDonald's; now the restaurant drives to them.)
Considering the size of the kitchen, which is very much on display at the rear of the space and not at all big (especially considering that there is a semi-subterranean private dining room to go with the main one), the food is both electrifyingly good and reasonably priced. Part of the magic lies in menu brevity; on offer are about a half-dozen or so taco plates, a comparable number of house specialties, a smattering of seafood dishes, and a couple of sides. All of it fits on one side of a small card. (The other side holds the equally to-the-point drinks list: a few beers, a few wines, a margarita, a sangría made with açai berry juice.)
The kitchen's marquee item is the hamburguesa ($9), and it's possibly the most intense hamburger experience I've ever had. It's not enhanced with cheese or swaddled within a fancy, heavily buttered bun. But the meat is "marinated" with bacon and onions, and bacon largely seems to mean pork fat, while marinated means permeated. The beefiness of the burger does survive the presence of these other formidable players, but they are mingled in a way that transforms them all. The result is something greater than the sum of its parts. It's possible you could get a burger this intense from a street truck or cart, but it would be from one that was unusually conscientious and not in a hurry. If you were served this burger at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, you would probably think it was well worth the $30 they would probably charge you.
At least two other items on the menu rival the hamburguesa for memorable verve. One is the platter of mussels ($13) simmered in white wine then stuffed with crumblings of house-made chorizo. The sausage brought out the mussels' meatiness, while the toast spears were useful in sopping up the broth, mostly white wine and cilantro enlivened by the tasty chorizo.
The other is the Mexican sashimi ($11), flaps of tombo tuna laid out in a chain on a long, narrow platter and scattered with rounds of serrano chile, red-onion slivers, minced scallion, and cilantro, and finished with lime juice and soy sauce. The only minus is that you don't get any bread to mop up the sauce. (On the other hand, you do get endless baskets of tortilla chips, along with an addictive tomatillo salsa, but the chips are thick and more than usually useless for sopping.)
The tacos are sized the way tacos should be sized: they're more than bites or nibbles, but they don't become unwieldy behemoths that spill half their contents like wet paper sacks when you pick them up. Each plate holds two tortillas, made from proper masa (not wheat flour), about three inches in diameter, and laid flat. You get to fold them yourself. Of the available fillings, I would say the carnitas ($8) — with onions, cilantro, and arbol salsa — is exceptional, with ropes of juicy meat just slightly crisped at the edges. We were also offered an unlisted vegetarian option ($6) of rice, pinto beans, cheese, and a smear of guacamole. It was commendable, though as a partier it wasn't quite up to the standard of the carnitas. But a little diffidence isn't going to drag down a party like the one at Don Pisto's.
Dinner: Tues.–Sun., 5:30 p.m.–12:30 a.m.
Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
510 Union, SF
Beer and wine
Wheelchair accessible; bathrooms on lower level