When it comes to Mexican restaurants, it may be slightly unfair of me, but in addition to wonderful food presented well, I want the meal to have an added level of fun. I mean – frozen margaritas and chips and salsa equals party – right? However you wish to weigh in on that idea, I have a little “fiesta” restaurant to recommend that serves great food and offers just the level of party that is right for you and your guests.
Pepe’s Cantina, in Hannibal Square, is the 6-month-old and eatery at 433 W. New England Ave. The fun began as soon as we sat down with a waiter who understood his craft well enough to take one look at me and told me that what I needed was a margarita and some jalapeno poppers to start. He was exactly right. I have a bad habit of showing up late for dinner reservations and my lateness on that evening had to do with consistently following the slowest driver on the road – in rush hour – making his assessment of the situation spot on. Soon we tasted our first margaritas, munching on a shared tapas plate of awesome jalapeno peppers – grilled and stuffed with cream cheese making them tasty and not too hot at all. In the meantime, the chips and house-made-fresh-daily salsa had arrived.
My spirits were lifting by the moment, and soon Justin – our personal “guacamole-boy” (his term) was by our table mashing up some gloriously chunky guacamole. It is worth noting that the prepared-by-the-table concept equals freshness, and it doesn’t get fresher than prepared in front of you. In front of you also means you get to taste what was prepared and you get to tweak it with a little more salt or a little more onion, etc. It turns out my guest and I loved what Justin created – just as it was and there was plenty for two people to share.
Looks of happy contentment had to be evident on our faces when owner/manager Frank Chavez came to check on our table. We immediately started the “I know you from somewhere game,” and we shared the fun of learning about Frank’s background from the several restaurants I had visited as he worked his way up in the business. His story is that wonderful story we love to hear about anyone who is willing to work hard and make a better life here in the United States. Frank was sent here as a teenager from Ecuador so that he would have the opportunity to create a life for himself. His story is classic in that he began as a teenage dishwasher who showed that he wanted to learn and better himself. He quickly moved from dishwasher to busboy – from busboy to waiter – from waiter to bartender – from bartender to manager and staff trainer. As a trainer, Frank had the outrageous good fortune to meet (and train) a beautiful young lady … from Ecuador! Melissa and Frank insist that it was a chance meeting so that even though their families did not arrange their marriage, their families are happy because it worked out almost as if it had been “arranged.” And they lived happily ever after.
Eventually Frank took the big step, and with the acknowledged help from several restaurant owners for whom he had worked, Frank joined with Chef Jose Baranenko to open Pepe’s Cantina. I had happily eaten Chef Jose’s food before and his artistry has only grown with time. My entrée was the real test as I ordered the Fish Veracruz. Beginning with grilled tilapia, a white fish that defines its taste by how it is served, the dish was enjoyable thanks to the sauce created from olives, peppers, and capers. The generous serving was accompanied by grilled veggies and refried beans made even tastier with crumbled chorizo (Mexican sausage used to “make everything taste better.”)
My guest had a fantastic dish called Al Pastor – a reason to dine at Pepe’s Cantina. The dish combines pineapple and pulled pork into some kind of ultimate fusion food – a cross between Middle Eastern shawarma and the guajillo-rubbed grilled pork served by Mexican street vendors. I’m sure the pork is marinated with the pineapple and then mixed with onion; at Pepe’s the onion is pickled first – genius! – cilantro (of course) is tossed into the mix and all this is served on grilled tortillas with a smoky onion-cilantro-salsa saucing with lime wedges. This is so highly recommended.
All this time we tasted frozen margaritas including the house margarita, the favorite of my guest, which is also is specially priced to $3.50 on Mondays, and small portions of the Sangria-Rita, made with the house sangria (my favorite), the strawberry margarita, and the sweet mango margarita with the rim of the glass sugared instead of salted.
The interesting news about dessert at Pepe’s is that Melissa Chavez got me to try the flan. I’ve always thought of flan as something you grew up with – or you didn’t – the point being that you could appreciate it if you grew up with it. I’ve never been a fan of flan, but Pepe’s has its own pleasing consistency and sweetness that is more like cheesecake than pudding. For the first time ever I can say I honestly enjoyed it. They also offer tres leches cake, which I love. It is, by definition, moist and wonderful.
We had a wonderful time at Pepe’s Cantina and I happily recommend it highly. In the spirit of that happy evening, manager Frank Chavez would like to offer one free queso dip to each table that orders at least one entrée during the month of June when you tell your waiter, “Josh sent me.” You don’t even have to bring in the magazine; they’ll take your word for it, and we’ll all live happily ever after.