Every time we think a local restaurant has hit the peak of buzz, another comes along and tops it. It took us weeks to reserve a table at white-hot Tako, even at the early-bird hour of 5 p.m.
Its name is a Japanese pun: The menu is half tacos, and octopi — tako in Japanese — dominate the decor. Tentacles are everywhere: in the wall-size mural, holding up the wall sconces, on the shirts for sale. But there is so much more: another mural depicting the Last Supper, a wall covered in plastic shrubbery, barn siding, Victorian ironwork, chandeliers made from bike wheels and chains. If the interior of Tako's sister restaurant next door, Butcher and the Rye, can be described as hipster baroque, Tako's is positively rococo. It would be overwhelming under any circumstance, but dimly lit, over-air-conditioned and LOUD, the dining room is at least as challenging as anything on the menu.
And the menu does seek to challenge. Co-owner Richard DeShantz is executive chef, but his partner in the kitchen is David Racicot, whose ambitious Notion offered the most uncompromising modernist cuisine found in Pittsburgh. The simple premise of Tako's menu — an up-to-the moment take on taqueria fare — is more accessible, and several straightforward versions of familiar classics provide relief from the intricate creations found elsewhere.
Take the queso fundido, that indulgent blend of melted cheese and spicy chorizo. The sausage is housemade, and Japanese shishito peppers mingled with traditional Mexican poblanos. The flour tortillas (also housemade) were paper-thin and almost as tender as mu shu pancakes. Lightly griddled for warmth and a hint of char, they were divine, while the queso was lusciously creamy, not at all greasy, and the peppers, plus fresh cilantro and scallions, brightened what can be a heavy dish.
A more inventive starter was less successful. The menu said that the beets in the beet tostada "pretend to be beef," but we couldn't reconcile this statement with the dish we ate, which was a bit of a mess, literally and figuratively. The tender-firm, strongly flavored beets vied with other assertive ingredients — pungent fromage blanc, ultra-citrusy lemon vinaigrette and avocado — to be king of the mountain of toppings that overwhelmed the light, crispy tortilla. When our server cleared our half-finished plate, he mentioned that the dish had become less popular since the kitchen recently changed it up and solicited our feedback, which we appreciated.
Poke was dominated by the clear, meaty flavor of fresh tuna enhanced by seaweed and a little white onion; and the ultra-light, black-sesame-studded rice crisps served with it were marvelous. We could have done without the dessert-like froth of "lime foam" that was supposed to counterbalance a spiciness we couldn't detect.
As with the starters, tacos ranged from traditional to inventive, with even the most standard fillings enlivened by thoughtful preparation, like the spicy marinade for the pork al pastor or the application of two salsas — a thin ring of roja plus a dollop of arbol — to the bistec. Prices were substantial, but so were the tacos themselves, each folded into a single tortilla, which sufficed.
A tako taco was de rigueur and delicious. Whole segments — not rings — of supple tentacle were grilled and perfectly paired with tangy harissa aioli, slivers of preserved lemon, peppery radishes, mizuna and pickled red onion. This was by far the best of the tacos we ordered. Pollo asada and steak also played harmoniously with their respective toppings and tortillas, but the meat, though tender and juicy, was too charred in both cases. Still, it couldn't hide the extraordinary quality of the Wagyu skirt steak.
Finally, we played with the make-your-own guacamole checklist, wherein one can choose from five base guacs (one wholly traditional, the rest varying levels of explorative) and then customize with add-ins ranging from pickled habañeros (free) to tuna belly ($4). We went out on a limb with bacon, blue cheese, duck confit and radish. The latter was finely shredded for optimal distribution, and the intense blue cheese worked well with the rich but mild avocado. The additions of smoky bacon and rich duck almost put this guac over the top, indulgence-wise; we just wished the chunks of bacon had been diced, not chopped, to avoid the large bacon bombs we encountered. We expected the housemade chips to be excellent, and they were.
So, did our meal at Tako live up to the hype? The best dishes were pretty great, and it was a unique experience. We give it six tentacles up.