Restaurant News

First Look at Pistolero's, Mexican Pop Cuisine Restaurant and Newest Addition to an Empire

Shawn Bermudez has slowly and steadily amassed a small real estate empire along Lower Westheimer to rival that of longtime restaurateur Marco Wiles and recent upstart Bobby Heugel. Wiles owns three spots, Heugel four. But Bermudez -- he now owns five.

In addition to Pistolero's, a tacos and tequila joint that replaced Nabi when it opened its doors a couple of weeks ago, Bermudez also owns Boondocks, Royal Oak Bar & Grill, a line-up of resale and vintage clothing shops that includes Pavement and Taxi Taxi, and the upcoming Stone's Throw. He's also a partner in food trucks Koagie Hots and The Golden Grill.

Not bad for a California kid who -- just a year ago -- was busy getting arrested by the Houston Police Department over a [patently ridiculous] noise complaint filed against his principal property, Boondocks. Although it only opened in 2007, Boondocks has already become the so-called "third corner of the Lower Westheimer triangle" along with Poison Girl and Catbirds.

While some longtime Montrose denizens have derided Royal Oak as the "Chili's of Montrose" and fret over the crowds that Bermudez is bringing to the quickly gentrifying neighborhood, there's no denying the positive impact that Bermudez has made in other areas since first moving here in 2004.

"The California native moved here at 25, dropping his job as a financial accountant in Orange County in favor of a six-month stint helping to revamp the resale shops near the corner of Dunlavy and Westheimer," wrote CultureMap's Whitney Radley in a short recap of Bermudez's contributions. And in that time, Radley noted, the now-34-year-old Bermudez "breathed a new life into the Montrose storefronts that first brought him here."

Bermudez has done the same to the old Nabi space, which always held so much promise -- promise that went frustratingly unfulfilled for years. The restaurant has since been gutted and completely reconfigured, with a straightforward menu that should do well in an area saturated with high-concept bars and restaurants.

Strangely, the restaurant seems smaller than when it was Nabi, but perhaps that's owing to the horseshoe-shaped bar that serves as Pistolero's massive centerpiece. Between the bottles of tequila lining its shelves and the Mexican pop art lining the walls, there's no mistaking what Pistolero's is: Mexican pop cuisine, as it were, with special emphasis on tequilas and margaritas.

This isn't an temple to old-school Tex-Mex like El Real down the street, nor is it modern interior Mexican like Hugo's across the way, nor is it taqueria fare like you'll find at nearby La Guadalupana. Pistolero's offers a Mexican menu that's just quirky enough to stand out, with enough Tex in its Mex to attract Houstonians who just want a simple bowl of queso with their margaritas.

As to those margaritas, they are still a work in progress. Bermudez says that he's currently tweaking the frozen margarita recipe -- which had the soft, inviting flavor and feel of powdered sugar when I tried it last Thursday night -- and still working on the right blend for the seasonal margarita, which will feature mango. For now, the standard house margarita on the rocks is your best bet, although it could use a little more oomph and a little less ice.

I couldn't find fault with the tacos, however, and I tried 10 of them. Chef Brandon Schillings's menu is designed to encourage this sort of mass consumption among friends, which I like: The 10 gigantic tacos were $30 and could have fed six people. Among my favorites were the smoke-laced barbacoa, the tender lengua under a light jicama slaw, the pork in a dusky red mole and the juicy shreds of oxtail with a smoky tomato jam.

You may smart at paying for chips and salsa, but the chips -- at least -- are worth the price, fried up fresh with housemade tortillas. The beer-based queso is a thickened up Tex-Mex twist on beer-cheese soup and something that could become a classic (yes, really) should Pistolero's stand the test of time.

Not bad for a California kid. Now let's just hope he sticks around.

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Katharine Shilcutt