Tako's atmosphere and Asian and Mexican street foods worth the wait
It seems like it took forever for Tako to open.
Pittsburghers walked past the graffiti mural and twinkling Tako sign on Sixth Street, mouths watering in anticipation of Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik's third Downtown eatery, following Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye.
After so much waiting, I'm happy to report the anticipation was so worth it. The details put into Tako — Japanese for octopus — from food to decor, are nothing short of extraordinary.
Visible from the street are five outside chef's table stools overlooking a small, lively kitchen and an illuminated sign letting you know some of what Tako offers: cold beer, air conditioning, tequila and, of course, tacos.
Some might say these are the necessities needed to cool off on a hot, summery day. When you walk through the entrance, it's like walking into a cool, hip, underground club. The lighting is dark; the music will have you nodding to the beat.
The decor — octopus sconces and grand chandeliers made from recycled bicycle chains, a large painting of the Last Supper and religious candles on each table —is quirky and purposeful. As is the menu.
With Tako, DeShantz has created his version of street food with Asian and Mexican influences.
When the restaurant first opened, the menu was larger and included bahn mi sandwiches, stuffed dates, and Korean fried rice. But with a small kitchen and a high demand for tacos, the menu has been paired down to feature flavorful tacos and sharable starters.
Note: Dishes arrive at the table as they are prepared, so you may be enjoying your tacos before your dining companions received theirs. Trust in the process, as the execution and precision put into each dish is remarkable.
Start off your Tako experience with a few starters that elevate the chip-and-dip game. Housemade salty chips are served with a trio of salsas: salsa de arbol (similar to a pico de gallo), a spicy salsa verde, and roasted tomato-poblano salsa.
During my first experience, they all lacked heat. But on my second trip, the salsa verde and roasted tomato poblano both had nice kicks to them.
If you like avocado, try making fresh guacamole combined with your choice of ingredients, ranging from corn, mango and blue cheese, to housemade chorizo, tuna belly and fried onions, among a plethora of add-ins. Or you can pick one of the chef's choices, such as the bacon, blue cheese, green onion, and duck-confit guacamole.
But, I urge you to try my favorite dish on the menu: poke, a Hawaiian raw fish salad. At Tako, poke is made with cubes of fresh tuna that are tossed with a spicy and sweet soy dressing, serrano peppers, white onions, radish and seaweed and topped with whipped foamy lime and served with rice crackers. The technique of whipped lime should be enough to get you to order this dish.
Pro tip: Scoop some of the poke onto you plate and top with crumbled rice crackers. The rice crackers are a good edition, but are too delicate and break easily when trying to scoop the poke from the bowl.
The main attraction of this restaurant are the tacos, which come two per order. They are carefully crafted with layers of flavors and served on custom-made taco boards. The tortilla shells are made in-house, pressed and grilled minutes before arriving to your table. The fillings are interesting — some combining over 10 ingredients to create a single taco. Note: The housemade tacos contain lard, but a vegan option is available.
A must-order is the restaurant's namesake, the Tako taco. This combines char-grilled, meaty octopus with a harissa (chile paste) aioli, peppery mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), preserved lemon peel, crisp radish, sweet pickled onions and crunchy, fried chickpeas.
If you have never tried octopus, this taco should be your introduction. And if you think you hate octopus, it will change your mind completely.
Another tasty taco is the chorizo: housemade chorizo combined with charred sweet onions, a roasted red-pepper romesco sauce, mild poblano peppers and topped with a perfectly fried egg and dash of super-spicy hot sauce. These definitely are the messiest, but worth the hassle. It might be one of the best things to eat on the menu to prevent a tequila hangover.
Probably my second favorite taco on the menu, after the Tako, is the Baja: light, crunchy, fried white fish served with a creamy lime aioli, crispy white cabbage, white onion, radish, cilantro and spicy jalapeno relish. It's definitely spicy, but the cool-lime aioli and cabbage balance out the heat nicely.
If you prefer vegetarian, try the mushroom taco with truffle, oaxaca cheese, burnt Brussels and huitlacoche salsa.
And, if you are too timid to try one of the flavorful combinations listed above, the carnitas taco filled with buttery braised pork butt and served with creamy and cool guacamole, salsa verde, white onions, cilantro and crisp chicharrones will do you right.
Although the tacos come pretty well-seasoned with heat, Tako offers up three housemade hot sauces: barrel-aged (mild), Valentia (similar to a buffalo style), and arbol (super-spicy).
Be sure not to skip out on an adult beverage here, as the menu is stacked well with over 20 margaritas and cocktails, as well as beer, sangria, wine and sake. The margaritas have interesting flavor profiles, some including grapefruit and sage, lychee and pepper, plus chamomile tea and pineapple. Most are served on the rocks, with a few frozen options.
An evening of tequila and tacos wouldn't be complete without pie. Yes, pie. Dessert is limited to three options: Tres Leches (a version of a coconut cream pie), Champurrado (dulce de leche and chocolate mousse), and by far my favorite, Pineapple Inside Up Cake made with tart pineapple and served with a scoop of sweet-and-spicy habanero ice cream.
Once again, DeShantz and his team have opened an unstoppable restaurant Downtown that's worth all the hype and wait. Be sure to make a reservation soon, because there's a wait for that, too.
Sarah Sudar is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to Trib Total Media.