Hitting the Taco Jackpot at Pistolero’s
To get a behind the scenes look at Pistolero's, check out our slideshow.
It didn't occur to me when I first sat down at the sparkling, copper-tiled bar; heaved a sigh for my long, arduous day; and ordered a drink that it was anything other than a normal evening. The chic space was filled with people happily munching on chips and queso and sipping margaritas. A soccer game was on TV. I was tired and hungry and not in a good mood. The guys next to me were perusing the menu, discussing the pros and cons of each taco, and though I was feeling less than social, I considered it my duty to interject.
"Are you trying to decide which taco to have?" I inquired. "You pretty much can't go wrong. I've tried them all."
I explained that I came in one Tuesday and ordered one of every taco on the menu, because on Tuesdays, each taco is only $2. That's really the best time to get tacos, I said knowingly. Tuesday.
The men looked at me bewildered before realizing that I was the confused one.
"Honey," one of the guys said, "today is Tuesday." And then more excitedly "Today is Taco Tuesday!"
Hallelujah, I thought. My day just got infinitely better.
Every time I've eaten at Pistolero's, I've left with a full belly and elevated mood. Something about the shabby-chic Mexican pop art on the walls and the modern Mexican street food-style menu (not to mention the tequila bar) makes me nearly giddy. From the Dia de los Muertos-themed décor to the badass hambur-torta that's the size of a football, Pistolero's is doing it right, filling a niche that Houstonians probably didn't realize needed filling. But now that it's here, what did we do without Taco Tuesdays?
Not quite a Tex-Mex restaurant, not quite a mom and pop taqueria and not quite an upscale ode to fine Mexican cuisine, Pistolero's is the badass cousin to all three. It has Tex-Mex elements, of course, like cerveza queso and beef fajitas, but the menu errs more on the side of classic street food with a modern twist.
Of course, no one in the restaurant industry seems too surprised to see this love child of Tex-Mex and California-Mex creating a home for itself in a trendy Houston neighborhood on Westheimer. It's the newest baby of Montrose mogul Shawn Bermudez, who also owns Boondocks, Royal Oak Bar and Grill, two vintage clothing shops, Pavement and Taxi Taxi; and two food trucks, all of which make a home on Westheimer between Dunlavy and Waugh. Now, with Pistolero's as part of Bermudez's mini empire, people are starting to take note of the California native's place in the Houston dining scene.
Pistolero's opened in May and most, like me, were immediately taken with the restaurant's chic but folksy design and killer happy hour deals. The design is something Bermudez refers to as "Mexican pop," a mix of traditional and modern steeped in Mexican popular culture. The restaurant is a veritable shrine to the pistolero, a Mexican outlaw with a sombrero and a scowl, represented artistically in multiple places around the restaurant but most formidably by a life-size bust that watches over the bar. Shelves lined with bottles of tequila stretch up to where the Pistolero sits enthroned in a gilded shadowbox, creating a tableau reminiscent of a Dia de los Muertos altar honoring guns, lawlessness and agave.
Two walls are covered in reclaimed wood panels, one in reclaimed corrugated tin that has begun to rust in some places, and the fourth wall has new brickwork. The mélange of textures would be completely rustic were it not for the extravagant glittering tile on the bar and the funky art hung in every empty space on the wall.
The more sinister cards from the Mexican bingo game Lotería have been blown up and framed (think "El Diablo" and "La Calavera"), and decorative crosses fill the spaces between old black-and-white photos of Mexico and folk-art paintings of skeletons and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Moravian star light fixtures hang from the ceiling, creating diffuse golden light that's not marred by the six big-screen TVs positioned around the space in anticipation of soccer season, which Bermudez hopes will bring big crowds to the bar. Bermudez doesn't need to wait for soccer season though, because it's not the TVs that are drawing crowds to Pistolero's. It's the food.
The idea was to make Pistolero's an even merger of bar and restaurant without emphasizing either element more than the other. It's a great idea in theory, but in actuality, Chef Brandon Shillings's menu is the star of the show.
It's divided into four sections: Small Plates; Tacos; Tortas, Burritos & Such; and Large Plates. The small plates are appetizer-size, but anything else on the menu could be a meal. The tacos lend themselves particularly well to sharing, which is pretty much a necessity when you eat out with me, because I want to try everything. Fortunately, when I ate at Pistolero's with some co-workers, they were game to share, so I was able to try every single taco on the menu.
When we went to Pistolero's that day, we were delighted to discover that it was Taco Tuesday (the first of many Taco Tuesdays in my future) and all 12 tacos on the menu were $2 each. Jackpot. After examining, then tasting every taco, we decided that we were only mildly disappointed by a few of them – the chicken, steak and lengua, all of which were a little too bland and chewy for my taste. For the most part, though, the tacos are an ideal blend of the Mexican street food concept with skillful recipes and preparation.
Standouts include the roast pork, which includes juicy pulled pork, mild corn salsa, avocado slices and cotija cheese. The salsa, avocado and sprinkling of cotija make this taco not only aesthetically pleasing (those colors!), but also lighter and more balanced than a meaty pulled-pork taco usually is. The barbacoa was another favorite of mine, due in large part to the fact that the smoky barbacoa was almost charred and crunchy. It's topped with a chopped jalapeño and onion "chilichuri" which adds heat that is then tempered by the red cabbage slaw. This is a beautifully constructed taco in both taste and appearance.
I also recommend the beer-battered fish taco, which comes with such a mighty piece of flaky white fish that the doubled corn tortillas barely hold its heft. It's topped with a creamy chili aioli and sweet honey lime slaw, both of which complement the salty fish. For those who don't eat meat, Pistolero's offers two great vegetarian taco options, but the better of the two is definitely the grilled portabella mushroom with cauliflower purée, jalapeño jam and jack cheese. The mushrooms are smoky and earthy and such a good meat substitute that I doubt anyone would miss it. And I could probably eat a bowl of the silky, slightly spicy cauliflower purée spiked with jalapeño jam and call it soup. Judge if you want.
At dinner, I stuck to the larger plates on the menu, which are indeed large. I invited two friends to join me for dinner, and when the main course arrived, it seemed that the kitchen had planned the order of the delivery to achieve maximum shock. First our waiter set down the tres puercos burrito, a sizable burrito, but nothing I hadn't seen before at Tex-Mex restaurants or even Chipotle. Then the waiter brought out the seafood relleno, which was significantly larger than the burrito and a masterpiece of colorful rice, salsa and seafood. Finally, the waiter set down the hambur-torta, which left us speechless. It was like something out of a competitive eating show – three layers of meat, bun and toppings held together by a large steak knife stabbed down the center.
This most impressive dish also happened to be my favorite. It's three layers of tender spiced hamburger meat topped with a fried egg, bacon, avocados, and sautéed mushrooms and onions. There are a few fries stuffed in there, too, just for good measure. It's difficult to express the individual flavors present in the hambur-torta, because they all meld together in a magnificent mosaic of spice and smokiness. The meat was cooked to medium with a nice char on the outside and soft, smooth texture on the inside. The added combination of the hot, spicy meat with earthy mushrooms and cool avocado would have been enough, but once the juice from the yolk of the fried egg trickled down the sides of the burger and soaked into the slightly sweet bun on the bottom, the dish became a masterwork.
If your appetite doesn't match that of my friend who valiantly downed that entire hambur-torta, Pistolero's offers a number of excellent appetizers to pair with a drink or three. The crispy nopales are balls of chopped cactus that have been battered and deep fried until they resemble crispy fried okra with the mild flavor of the green, gelatinous nopales enhanced by the chili aioli served as a dipping sauce.
The cerveza queso is another winner, which surprised me because queso is something I usually enjoy but write off as a dish that needs to be left alone, free from the extra garnishes and flavors that chefs try to impart on the Tex-mex classic. Pistolero's queso has the flavor of spicy beer cheese soup but the thickness of good, old-fashioned, melted Velveeta, the processed cheese product for which I have an unhealthy affinity. If you can add beer and heat to my boring queso routine and improve upon a classic, then I salute you.
For a place that serves so many small dishes perfect for pairing with a few cocktails, Pistolero's drinks are decidedly disappointing. Pistolero's calls itself a tequila bar, but with the exception of the Mexican Martini and the Añejo Old Fashioned, the drinks are light on tequila and overly sweet. The cocktails are inventive and sound impressive in theory with muddled herbs and fruit and homemade tequila infusions, but most of them fall flat. I get that a drink called "Stawberry Limonada" or an infusion of pineapple and jalapeno might be on the sweet side, and there's certainly a market for fruity cocktails, but I was quite dissatisfied with my margarita on the rocks. It tasted like limeade with a hint of tequila, and left me longing for more limey zing and tequila bite and less freaking ice. Pistolero's does have a rather extensive tequila and mezcal menu though, so if it's tequila you're after, I recommend ordering off that menu and skipping the cocktails all together. It's too bad about the cocktails though, because the bar atmosphere is laid-back and fun, and there's a great selection of Mexican beer.
I come back to Pistolero's for the tacos, but I stay for the charming crowd and fun vibe of the place. I like eating under the watchful gaze of the Pisolero and enjoying a beer or three while glancing up at a soccer game on TV. I like that it feels like a sports bar where people care more about good food and conversation than what the score is. And I really like the cheap, delicious tacos.
I hear it gets crowded at Pistolero's on the weekend, when people show up in droves for fanciful cocktails and shots of tequila in an atmosphere that allows them some semblance of class even after far too many drinks. You won't see me there on the weekend though. I get my fill every Tuesday when the tacos are being downed faster than the margaritas and when it's perfectly acceptable to eat 12 of them in one sitting. It's Taco Tuesday. Gluttony is on the menu. Pistolero's
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