“We’d follow you anywhere” were our words to Stephan Pyles as he took time to chat with us while making the rounds around the dining room of his newest restaurant, San Salvaje. We were nearing the end our special 5-year anniversary meal. We had spent the previous anniversary at the then new Stampede 66, also belonging to Chef Pyles and loved every second of it. We dined at Chef Pyles’ eponymous flagship a few years before for Dallas Restaurant Week and loved every second of it. When we heard that San Salvaje, his take on South and Central American cooking, would be opening at the beginning of May, we made reservations right away to celebrate. You see, in my eyes, Stephan Pyles can do no wrong and I would gladly eat anything the man took the time to create. ANYTHING. Well, maybe not anything. Let’s move on.
I consider Chef Pyles not only one of the top 2 chefs in Dallas (the other being Teiichi Sakurai), but one of the top chefs in the country. What Chef Pyles has mastered is the art of creating outstanding dining experiences for his guests. Everything from the design of his restaurants to the food to the wine/cocktail program to the service leaves you feeling completely satisfied on every front. San Salvaje, despite being open for just over a week at the time of our visit, is no exception and further cemented my already ridiculous man crush on Stephan Pyles.
Located in what used to be Stephan Pyles’ Samar (on Ross between N Pearl and N Olive), San Salvaje is a modestly sized dining room and modestly sized bar area. There is great color scattered about amidst decor that is half Catholic and half pagan (San Salvaje meaning “wild saint” and referring to Chef Pyles’ vision to marry pagan and Latin American religious cultural heritages). The restaurant gives you the sense that you’re in for an elevated dining experience, but is still very comfortable and fun and quirky. It’s the epitome of Chef Pyles! Jeans are just fine but, so is a relaxed suit.
Now, for the damn important parts that really matter – the food and drink.
The cocktail/wine and PISCO menu has fantastic, unique and AFFORDABLE options. If I remember correctly most of the wine-by-the-glass options fall between $8-$10 (most expensive being around $14), and is purely Latin America…and delicious! Cocktails fall right in line with the theme.
Lady Gator had the Peruvian Welcome Drink – Pisco Porton, Chicha Morada, and Passion Fruit Foam. It came out in a small cordial-like glass which means one of two things: 1 – you’re about to taste something REALLY potent and 2 – I’m probably going to be making a “joke” about needing a pitcher of those bad boys. Well, the flavors were perfectly constructed and made for delightful sipping on the way towards a relaxing feel. It was a touch sweet with some bite and spice from the Chicha. Very interesting drink not found in Dallas. So yeah, I’ll be needing a pitcher of this purple drank. Yours truly slurped
down the Pisco Margarita. Made with Pisco, Lime Juice, Agave, and Lemon Juice and garnished with some citrus zest it hit my tastebuds in all the right spots. I strongly recommend both of those damn drinks. Additionally, you can sample a few different piscos from Chile and Peru. Pisco, South American brandy, has gained popularity in other cities over the last 5 years and starting to appear a bit more in Dallas. I’d be interest in trying the tasting flight on my next trip.
Now, what about the hell damn food?!
The menu is broken up into:
Wanting to sample as much as possible without requiring a wheel barrow to leave the restaurant, we opted to snack on some interesting sounding choices from pretty much every category except the Platos Grandes (look – I need something new to try on my next visit.)
1.) We started off with the Foie Gras Tacu Tacu with Banana Chutney. The Gator’s 3 favorite foods: Pizza, Pancakes, and Foie Gras. When you present a lobe of seared foie gras on a Peruvian pancake made of beans and rice (or lentils) (the tacu tacu) and then, top it off a mind-blowing banana chutney – I….just don’t know. I mean…come on! Right?! I mean the sweet latin-inspired love being made by the foie gras and the bean/grain cake was sexy enough. If you can find a way to invite pizza to this romance? That’s a 3-way I want to be a part of. The chutney amplified the not-sweet aspects of a banana’s flavor while giving slight whispers of the sweet side. I’ve never had anything like it.
2.) From the Ceviches y Tiraditos section we ordered the Blue Fin Ceviche with
Kaffir, Young Coconut and it was spot on. Fresh and tangy. From now on, I demand all of my ceviches to be served in coconut halves. Preferably sliced by the blade of an aged Peter Pan’s sword after that punk-ass Rufio hurls it at him in a jealous fit. (Hook reference FTW!)
3.) From the Arepas y Empanadas
section, we chose the Wild Mushroom – Huitlachoche Empanada with Guava. If you’re as big of a fan of corn fungus as we are, you’ll love this treat. Familiar mushroom flavors enhanced with the delicious, funky, earthy accents of the huitlacoche all encapsuled in a light, crisp fried shell. The guava jam (?) was pretty good. The sweet corn soup/reduction/yumminess sitting at the bottom of the serving vessel was amazing. You can even eat the baby corn shoots tucked down next to the empanadas for a full 360-degree corn experience. It’s a deliciously kick-ass fried treat that leaves your appetite ready for the next experience. Best Hot Pocket I’ve ever had.
4.) Moving on, we spent a little time in Taco y Tamale town with the Smoked Duck Tacos with Rhubarb Salsa. Served with mini-limes and a plethora of various sauces, these were probably our favorite bite of the night. Juicy duck with crispy edges. They were like duck carnitas…ducknitas. I’m going to need every taco joint in Dallas to start making ducknitas, please. The sauces were all great, but honestly – you don’t need them. Just squeeze a bit of the lime on the smokey duck and let the slightly sweet, slightly bitter rhubarb salsa do the rest. I could/would probably order like 3 orders of these on a trip to San Salvaje and be in heaven. Oh, and those tortillas – damn.
5.) While in Taco y Tamale town, we enjoyed a stay at the Sweet Corn Humita
with Lobster and Fried Avocado. Humitas are basically South American tamales. Only, whereas tamales are made with masa (corn flour), humitas are made with fresh ground pure corn. The difference is really amazing. You get the sweetness of the corn. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE tamales, too. Chef Pyles’ version with the lobster and fried avocado? Damn. Just damn. Honestly, my favorite was eating bits of the fried avocado with the humita base. I don’t even need the lobster. (Side rant – while Chef Pyles’ lobster was perfectly firm and fresh – as a whole, lobster is terribly overrated. I will elaborate in a future article.) I really encourage you to try the humita and any of the tamales/tamals (here or at Chef Pyles’ flagship.)
6.) Our last stop on the savory portion of our epicurean trip through the southern hemisphere put as at the Three Cheese Arepa with Salsa Verde. Take a cheesy corn/masa dough, fill it with more cheese and sear it until it’s crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside? Cover it in zingy salsa verde? Do it all under the skillful guise of Chef Pyles? Simple and delicious. REALLY delicious. I can’t say much more than that, except…I want about 5 more.
7.) We finished off the night with two desserts, because some is good – more is
better. One was the Alfojore Torte with Dulce de Leche. Think of it, kind of like a South American Moonpie/Ding Dong mashup. Chocolate, cake, cream, dulce de leche and cookie crumbles? It was – pretty good. Compared to what we had just experienced where even the most simple of foods had been elevated with perfect execution, we were a bit let down by this traditional South American treat. However…
8.) The Banana Corunda with Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream and caramelized bananas? WOW! Our waiter suggested this and we’re so very glad he did. Corundas, as is no surprise, are another form of tamale. I believe they are generally savory and simply just served as a starch to accompany the main meal (in lieu of tortillas or rice.) However, these dessert versions were – as with everything else Chef Pyles does – elevated to magnificent heights. The dough for the corunda seemed to simply be…mashed bananas? Maybe with some brown sugar and cinnamon or piloncillo/panela? Then, topped with caramelized bananas, caramel, candied nuts, dash of cinnamon and served with a Mexican chocolate ice cream that is out of this world. I’m not a big fan of bananas with chocolate, usually. This made me a believer and may be one of the best desserts you can find in Dallas. If you love bananas, you HAVE to try this. It was really the perfect way to end a really perfect evening.
I’m sure they have happened, but I have yet to talk to anyone who has had a less than super solid evening at a Stephan Pyles concept. There’s just something about the foundation that he builds and the culture he injects into each and every one of his restaurants that wins me over in every aspect. It’s honest and straightforward. There’s no loud douche music. Every concept exudes class without pretense and with a bit of edge/panache/flair.
The service, while quirky at times, is so refreshingly candid and polite. The food – simple concepts, inventive twists, immaculate execution. Everything is approachable, familiar, but still exciting. The flavors are interesting and leave you wanting more. There’s nothing that will blow your mind, per se. That is in no way an insult. I don’t think that’s what Chef Pyles is striving for. He’s not out to prove anything…other than he’s just a straight-forward kick-ass master at what he does. You can always trust that anytime you visit a Stephan Pyles restaurant you will be taken care of and never left regretting anything….except that you don’t have two stomachs. San Salvaje is in no way an exception to this, I’m happy to announce.
The night ended with Chef Pyles telling us a hilarious, “lewd” story about how a couple of his guests had a bit of romance in their car in the parking lot of his first restaurant here in Dallas, Routh Street Cafe. Nine months later they had their first child and we made jokes about whether they named it Ruth…or Routh…or Stephan. It was like we were a couple of his friends and he wanted just to connect. I assure you, Chef Pyles, there was none of that on the night of our visit. Afterall, there’s no parking lot, just valet…a real romance killer.
I award San Salvaje 300 Gators on The Gator Scale of Awesome Deliciousness of Awesomeness…which I just made up because San Salvaje and Chefy Pyles deserve it.
Sycophantic rant over.