Michelada and the house salsa verde.
Miyagi oysters on the half shell.
Al pastor taco.
Chorizo and mussels.
The hamburguesa (wish the pic did it justice).
We all have obsessions. Some, for Italian vehicles. Others, for stamps, or horses, or burritos, sad clown artwork, big breasts, chocolate chip cookies, Hummel figurines, pickles, ice cream. Or, in the case of Pete Mrabe, the chef-owner of ~DON PISTO’S~ in North Beach, Rosarito. Which is why he flies to San Diego at least every couple of months, walks across the border to TJ, grabs the trolley to Rosarito, and prowls the streets for culinary inspiration.
It’s also why there’s a 1 1/2 pound Maine lobster on his menu that’s cooked in rendered pork fat (it’s a Puerto Nuevo thing, 10 minutes south of Rosarito). No joke. For about $32, you get a glistening lobster that just finished taking a pig fat bath. You pull the succulent meat out of its shell, and dunk it into some cilantro butter (‘cause you need more fat, right?), then wrap it up in a floury handmade tortilla from La Palma Mexicatessen, along with Yucatán white rice, pinto beans, and a flourish of chile de árbol salsa. I never thought I’d be into a lobster burrito, but damn, that was one decadent and tasty way to eat lobster.
Mrabe’s Rosarito obsession also spills over into his passion for authentic al pastor tacos ($9 for two). I always pine for the al pastor stand I faithfully visit every time I go to Puerto Vallarta, waiting for the señora who makes them to hack those delightful little pieces of pineapple off the spit and into the taco. Here, chunky bites of charcoal-grilled rib chop gets sliced to order and then fried on the flat top. The fatty and smoky meat is flecked with pieces of pasilla chile left over from the previous night’s marinade, grilled pineapple, and then gilded with avocado salsa, raw onion, and cilantro. While I ultimately wanted a red salsa instead of the green, it’s one hell of a taco—thank God it comes in a set of two. And, in true street taco style, the tacos are double layered.
My sis and I also dug the rich camarones tacos ($9 for two), stuffed with sweet and plump shrimp just barely sautéed in garlic and oil. The pescado ($11 for two) was a juicy and hefty piece of snapper topped with chile de árbol, cabbage, and avocado salsa—a bit wet and messy, so you just have to eat it quickly. (The fish changes up—it’s sometimes fried Baja-style, or grilled swordfish.) The carnitas ($8 for two) are all about seeing some confit action, but it didn’t strike the magic fatty-crackly balance I like. Mrabe told me he was switching the pork to Snake River Farms, so I need to try them again. For now, the al pastor is where it’s at.
Now, I know you didn’t come to a Mexican restaurant for a hamburguesa, but with one bite of the burger here, you’re gonna already be plotting your return, pronto. Mrabe does some effed-up work to beef, it’s genius. He fries up some bacon, and then cooks onion in the bacon fat, and then marinates Niman Ranch beef with the bacon and the bacon onions overnight, and then double grinds it all together the next day. The charcoal grill does its magic to the beef, and while the patty was a touch overdone, it didn’t even matter for this medium rare-burger loving girl, because the fattiness and bacon-y undertones completely permeated the juicy patty. It has such a deep flavor—the kind that just makes you shut the hell up while you’re eating it, because you’re not just eating it, you’re communing with that mother-effing thing. It’s slathered with chunky guacamole that plays amazingly against the smokiness of the grill-kissed beef, and I tucked the pickled chile on there, too. It’s all sandwiched in a crazy-fresh and lightly toasted torta-like bun from the neighbors, the North Beach Bakery (formerly Italian French Baking Company). Mrabe says he’s also going to add some pickled cabbage with cilantro on the side. $9 for the hottest sex show I’ve ever seen in North Beach, amigos.
Another thing that will spin your head like Linda Blair is the chorizo and mussels ($13). The chorizo is made in house, loaded with spices (clove, allspice), rehydrated and pickled chiles (guajillo, árbol), garlic, herbs (marjoram, thyme), and bay leaf. I wish I could buy this chorizo and hang out with it on a regular basis; it has a great personality (especially when it’s steeping in a white wine and cilantro broth). Just squirt that wedge of lime all over the tender mussels, and get those little mussel shells and scoop up the saucy goodness (you can also dunk toasted bread that’s dusted with cayenne into the broth).
You want more? Okay, fine, you hedonist! For a true Mexican beach vibe, start with some of the fresh Miyagis on the half shell, and bless them with a few shakes of Tapatío and lime, take a sip of your michelada ($5), and you’re practically on the playa. There were a couple ceviches we tried that were fine, but Mrabe said he’s changing them, so I won’t even go into what I liked or didn’t like since they’re saying, “Adiós.”
For the record, vegetarians would have a slightly challenging time here. The kitchen would do up some vegetarian tacos, the beans are vegetarian (but are so tasty you would swear there’s lard in there), and fortunately the sweet Mexican street corn ($4), loaded with queso fresco, is almost a meal in itself. But that’s about it.
There’s a weekend brunch from 11am-3pm, with that aforementioned chorizo making an appearance, and all-you-can-drink sangria for $15, or “agua fresca” mimosas for $12. I heard it’s quite the scene, so be prepared. Sunday nights, starting at 5:30pm, you can also swing by for $2 beers, and $3 sangria. And the joint is open late, until 12:30am (nightly).
Speaking of bevvies, one question we heard a fair amount is, “A couple more drinks, ladies?” I am rather fond of that question. While there’s sadly no tequila here (beer and wine only), Mrabe has created an amazing solution to the nasty sake margaritas you can see around town: they actually use a chardonnay aperitif called 24 Degrees, which clocks in at 24% (it goes down way too smooth). The house “margarita” ($8) is made with a double shot of the aperitif, lime, sugar, and ice, and is a commendable concoction; it goes extremely well with the light and crisp homemade chips, and the citrusy tomatillo salsa verde.
This North Beach space used to house El Raigón, the Argentine steak house, and so there’s still a rustic vibe, with wood tables and floors, tall-backed wood chairs, low ceilings, brick walls, an open kitchen (love that grill!), and upbeat music. It’s cozy, and as I’ve been told, can get totally loco loud (the night we were there it was just right, however). This place totally hits the mark: friendly staff, the food tastes so fresh (they make the guacamole every 20 minutes, and the salsas throughout the night), and Mrabe is not only an obsessive, but he’s an innovator, and a really hard worker: he preps during the day with his staff, and then bartends and manages at night. Don Pisto’s doesn’t have much of a sign, and it’s a bit off the main drag, so just sniff the air and let the al pastor and hamburguesa show you the way.