FAMILY JEWELS: Pomegranate seeds and balsamic bring a sparkle to Jose Pistola’s guacamole.
Know what I remember from my early visits to Jose Pistola’s? Wii Bowling. It was 2007, and virtual-reality leagues were the post-ironic bocce clubs of their day. The gaming system was on fire, but the food at Pistola’s barely smoldered.
The April addition of chef Adan Trinidad has brought me back to this dark bar, a restaurant-industry haunt with one of the city’s most unsung beer lists and attic bathrooms a poltergeist could murder you in. Some of Trinidad’s plates, like the glistening tiradito of raw fluke splashed with yuzu and freckled with togarashi, made me want to take a sledgehammer to the overbearing sound system, twist 200-watt bulbs into the overhead sockets and lay a white cloth over my table. Fruity, spicy, sour and fresh, the food demanded a bit more attention.
Like so many Mexican immigrants to Philly, Trinidad was born in Puebla. At 13, his family settled in Cherry Hill, where his mom was the kitchen manager at P.J. Whelihan’s. “My parents didn’t want me to get in trouble in the summers, so my mom would take me to the restaurant.”
Years later, Trinidad worked under Jose Garces at El Vez before moving on to other local spots. He then spent five years in New York working for serial restauranteur Richard Sandoval and developing a talent for ceviches — like cubed tuna in a coconut salve with ginger and habañero, a song of ice and fire you don’t need HBO to experience.
Post-Manhattan, Trinidad returned to Philly and reconnected with Pistola’s Casey Parker and Joe Gunn. He knew the bartenders-turned-bar-owners from their days at Fergie’s, a favorite spot of the El Vez crew for post-shift mischief, and took over Pistola’s kitchen.
“Like a lot of people, I loved the place and the concept, but [the food] was the missing piece,” he says.
Not anymore. Guac arrived in earthenware pots, creamy green mounds of impeccably fresh avocado mashed with tomato, red onion, cilantro, roasted jalapeños, lime and olive oil. That’s the O.G. version, but far more interesting are the ones topped with fresh diced mango, pomegranate seeds and swirls of balsamic syrup, or lumps of spicy Maryland crab dressed in vinegary morita chile sauce.
The charro beans were a glorious border-town mutt: sort of chili, sort of baked beans, not quite either, but together better than both. Trinidad soaks dried black beans overnight then stews them the next morning with garlic, onion, tomato, spices and a hoppy IPA; it’s the kind of homey sustenance you want to eat on the couch during a snowstorm. Ditto for his tortilla soup, which could have used a stronger salting but was otherwise beautiful, with poached thigh meat and avocado floating in a shiny, brick-red pasilla broth.
Trinidad delivers 14 different tacos on featherweight, house-made corn tortillas. Each has its own personality, from the brooding banana-leaf-steamed goat heady with canela and clove to the butter-poached lobster accessorized with peas, pickled pearl onions, coconut and guajillo. Cooked for seven hours, traditional pork pibil rang with notes of orange and habañero; nontraditional short rib with soy and Asian pear.
The wings could have been crispier, but the fireball-red Buffalo sauce absolutely electrified. Trinidad hated chewy churros as a kid. The sugared ones he serves here are lightened nicely by pate a choux, but their airy construction couldn’t penetrate the stiff cajeta dipping sauce.
Like the food, the beer at Jose Pistola’s has also changed.
“It was heavy on imports and crazy styles, and we tried to be the only bar that carried certain things,” Gunn says of the original list. “[Now], instead of trying to outdo everybody else, we constantly rotate the bottle menu according to what a handful of us at Pistola’s are into at the time. We’ll keep some beers on for sentimental reasons or we simply love the sales rep. We keep one Mexican beer on because if we don’t, everyone loses their mind.”
Is he talking about me? “The beer menu features over 80 bottles with an oddly heavy Belgian bent,” I wrote in 2007. “I like Chimay as much as the next guy, but it’s weird being in a Mexican restaurant and not being able to get a Dos Equis.”
People can change. Restaurants, too.
JOSE PISTOLA’S | 263 S. 15th St., 215-545-4101, josepistolas.com. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily, kitchen till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $5-$14; mains $7-$18.
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