Don Pisto’s gives upscale Mexican a good name

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerSmashing seafood: The grilled calamari at Don Pisto’s is among the distinctive dishes at Don Pisto’s in North Beach.

I love introducing The Chubby Noodle to new friends. “Who knew you could get such good food in a dive bar?!?” they ask. I smile and nod, imagining I look wise (but possibly just self-satisfied and smug).

So upon bringing some newbies there recently, I was surprised to find a very limited menu — no ramen! — and a meal that fell shy of my high praise. Our server told us things had been chaotic, and wasn’t sure what the future held. Say it isn’t so!

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Spoiler alert: Everything is fine. Chef Pete Mrabe says that between baseball madness, the Blue Angels and other local hubbub, Chubby Noodle and its elder sibling, Don Pisto’s, have simply been spread thin.

Not to mention that Mrabe is midway through starting his third venture, a deli.

In the midst of all this empire-building and commotion, I decided to check in on the mother ship. Don Pisto’s, how art thou?

It’s a place that doesn’t get heaps of media attention, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowds. Very early on a Sunday evening, the wait was 20 minutes; Tuesday had a 45-minute backup.

Is this popularity based on Mexican food’s scarcity in North Beach? Is it wandering tourist runoff? Maybe a bit of both, but that’s not the whole story.

It’s a now-familiar formula: Take Mexican basics, gussy them up with blue-ribbon ingredients and fancy cheffing, and double-up on street food prices. This model works especially well in your nicer neighborhoods. But unlike say, Copita, Mrabe’s results are largely solid.

Generously portioned shrimp tacos weren’t mucked up with distractions, just garlic, onion and a smooth avocado salsa. Hunks of smoky grilled rib chop gained sweetness from charred pineapple in the tacos al pastor.

The pollo asado featured de-boned and flattened Mary’s Chicken drums and thighs, with the skin’s outer crunch yielding to supple, hot flesh underneath (sounds gratuitously dirty). The avocado, drunken salsa and grilled green onions were nice accoutrements, but I ate much of the chicken unadorned, swathed only in hot corn tortillas.

Mrabe, who did a stint in Baja, Mexico, also acquired a yen for cooking seafood. High rollers can take a turn with his Puerto Nuevo lobster for two, but simpler pleasures beckoned me.

A “Mexican sashimi” plate (no eye rolling, please) simply featured thin salmon strips, cleanly dressed with a bit of citrus and pepper. Shrimp ceviche was decent, if a bit cloying. And the purple wild Monterey calamari was as handsome as it was tasty: butterflied, skewered and charcoal-grilled, resting on a bed of radish salad.

Don Pisto’s certainly had some lesser moments. As with any spot lacking a full liquor license, the no-tequila margaritas were a bit wan. Then there was the indistinct tortilla soup, or the guacamole whipped ferociously into some kind of odd mousse.

And desserts? Well, for some reason Don Pisto’s only offers goopy “dessert shots” straight out of the Chi-Chi’s playbook (but without hard booze).

But I’m not hating. Don Pisto’s might not have quite dazzled me like  Chubby Noodle, but Mrabe clearly demonstrated he’s got range. And at only 26, he’s got room to grow.

There’s no question I’ll be one of the first in line at his new sandwich shop. Are you surprised?

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