In the world of disappointing Azteca-esque Mexican family restaurants, Pepe's demurely dishes out solid food, featuring homemade tortillas. The difference between homemade tortillas and the Azteca packs pumped out at tortilla factories is like the difference between my Grandma Jane's legendary (crumb-topped!) mac 'n' cheese and Piedmont four-for-a-dollar mac 'n' cheese-flavored powder. Or her beef vegetable soup (declared "miraculous!" by an aunt or two) and Campbell's condensed viscous vichyssoise. Or her nationally recognized baked beans (bacon-and-sausage to beans ratio 1:1) and that ketchupy bean dribble at KFC. How I miss Grandma Jane, highball in one hand, Carlton 100 drooping its three-inch ash from her "Love That Red!" lips, kneading raw hamburger for meatloaf with her other acrylic-nailed and heavily jeweled hand.
But back to tortillas: Pepe's has got the real thing, steaming and sweet--what my Grandma Jane would have made, had she been a Mexican family restaurant.
I did not know about the tortillas when I studied the expansive menu at Pepe's. I knew only that I felt very low-blood-sugary (the mere suggestion of drawing plasma from my veins made me weak-kneed and quavery-voiced), so I ordered food for everyone at the table. We started with Pepe's Nachos ($6.50) and the Ceviche Tostada ($3.25). Both did the trick. The nachos filled our empty bellies with beans that were actually tasty, rather than the usual intestine glue, and plenty of guacamole. The ceviche was a bit on the chewy/fishy side for me, and not nearly spicy enough, but I did walk away free of food poisoning, which I cannot say for the most delicious ceviche I ever tasted (my own).
One of the many things I love about Mexican family restaurants is beer and tequila. If you order the Camarónes à la Diabla ($8.95), you will be grateful for the staff's deftness with a bottle opener. Not only will this dish require seconds on tortillas (well, what doesn't?), but you should also prepare for the slow burn, and order a couple beers at once. The menu declares the Diabla to be "a VERY HOT & SPICY sauce": words that challenged all of us to stuff several prawns into our mouths and masticate, grumbling, "This is not so spicy." About three seconds later, a deep, dark spiciness rolled over my tongue, like lava lapping up the countryside. Other highlights from the Mariscos chapter of the menu include the fish tacos ($6.50)--three of 'em, with a generous spread of beans and rice (you will be full). On the page of Especiales, I found Nopales ($8.25): pickled cactus simmered in a sauce not as spicy as the devil's, but tasty nonetheless.
The biggest, and therefore best, item on Pepe's menu is the coyly titled Prawns with Carne Asada. I did not notice said dish until a return visit, when a less hurried, more in-depth reading of the novella-sized menu revealed this meat parade on a plate. For $11.95 (a good chunk of change for cheapskates like me) Pepe's chef will wrap each gigantic prawn in one, sometimes two pieces of bacon, and place them, fried and salty, atop a skirt steak bathed in a wondrous marinade, green onions, and roasted jalapeños. Beans and rice complete this dish, known in my book as Protein, Four Ways: Thank you, Pepe's.
Even if Pepe's did not serve Prawns with Carne Asada, it is a bastion of hope and goodness in a place of six-lane thoroughfares and squashed opossums. Keep pedaling, or flooring it, as the case may be, if you aren't hungry. Maybe you'll reach Greenwood or Ballard. Probably you'll find yourself beneath a painting of a palm tree complete with a poncho-ed man, asleep in his sombrero, and you'll be wondering how many of those fresh tortillas can fit in your pockets.
Pepe's Mexican Family Restaurant
8311 15th Ave NW, 781-8342. Sun-Wed 11 am- 9 pm, Thurs 11 am-9:30 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm. Beer and tequila. $$.
Price Scale (per entrée)
$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up