Chef Thomas Pena’s has the true soul of a Mexican jefe de la cosina and it comes through in every morsel served at Regalito– (translates as “the gift”… I call it “the Gift of Mexican Cooking“), from the Chicharrones (twice cooked pork belly; slow-roasted then finished in the fryer) to the perfectly pickled peppers and carrots that accompany them. Not your run-of-the-mill pickled vegetables, these are just the right texture, not too soft and not too crisp, and just the right pickling mix was obviously used, neither too tart, too spicy or too bland, a real testament to the care that goes into every detail. The ambiance is homey and friendly, and “designed to encourage community between … kitchen and … guests. The kitchen is completely open, separated by a simple wooden diner counter.”
Talking with Chef/Owner Thomas Pena, he is quick to say that his first teacher was his mother. Coming from a family of 13, “every meal was like cooking for a restaurant full of people…. The idea for the restaurant was born during a meal at a Mexico City market stall; three women cooked from a small menu for a dozen customers sitting on benches surrounding the makeshift kitchen. No steam tables, minimal separation between cook and diner – instant community”.
More recently, he was clearly inspired by his trip to Des Moines, Iowa for the 12th Annual Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner where “the farmers were honored for their commitment to raising free-range, sustainably sourced hogs,” the same way they have been in his mother’s native Mexico since their introduction to that country by the Spanish in the 1800’s. The result of all this inspiration: on Tuesdays, Regalito becomes Pigalito, featuring a “simple pork focused menu”.
Start with an Agave Wine Margarita ($7/glass, $27/carafe), and discover the lighter side of the fruits of the agave plant in this refreshing mix of fresh-squeezed lime juice and Agave Wine, a beverage with a lower alcohol content than its cousin, tequila, but all the flavor. Perfect starter drink!
Not to be missed from the special Tuesday menu that is Pigalito: (besides the above-mentioned chicharrones ($6):
- Elote ($6.50), perfectly-charred sweet corn on the cob, with cotija cheese that is clearly several grades up from that which one procures from markets in the Mission, house-made mayonnaise, lime and chile powder.
- Frijoles Charrros ($7)- refried pinto beans with house-made chorizo and house-made tostadas. These are the details that make Pigalito/Regalito a dining experience that you will not want to miss. As our server explained (and yes, the staff is Latino, bi-lingual and well-versed in Chef Thomas’ special form of authentic slow-cooking), “the chef insists on making everything here, from scratch”.
- Costillas en salsa de chile de arbol ($19)- Chef Thomas puts these to braise at 5 in the morning, so they are slow cooked and ready to serve when they open for service at 6 in the evening, served in a well-balanced tomatillo y chile de arbol salsa
and from the Regalito menu (limited menu items are available on Tuesday, should you find yourself dining with some friends who prefer poultry):
- Tinga de Pollo ($17)-Shredded free-range chicken. The chicken was amazingly moist and the chiptole salsa was refreshingly, not “dumbed-down” for the American palate. Chef Thomas sticks to his guns in the kitchen, insisting that his sous chefs remember that people come to Regalito for a genuine Mexican meal, so they should not be afraid to add the requisite sabor de chile.
- Pollo Regalito ($16)- this signature 1/2 roast free-range chicken served with lime or chile-garlic marinade,and your choice of sautéed greens or roasted potatoes is seasoned so well, it’s a stand-alone without salsa.
All-in-all Regalito/Pigalito is the real deal. Slow food at its Mexican best, just be sure to leave room for dessert (we didn’t, so we’ll be back!). 3481 18th St @ Valencia, Phone 415.503.0650