Tonight we went to Pepe’s, the most casual of the three restaurants in the Osman Rodas group on the north shore. It reopened with dine-in and a revamped menu last week, so we took the perfect temperature yesterday evening as a chance to go sit on their large back patio and see what they’ve been up to.
PePe’s is downtown, half a block from the main drag on Columbia, and it has been a number of places, all weird. It is an unusual space, with a very nice backyard with a lot of potential.
Osman Rodas is a very good restaurateur with a resume that includes Emeril’s as an employee, and Pardo’s as employer. The other restaurant in the group is Forks and Corks. His restaurants are glamorous and have a sophisticated vibe that attracts the beautiful people. For a Mexican joint, Pepe’s is definitely a cut above in decor, but until now the food has not been up to the brand.
About a year ago, Robert Vasquez became corporate chef, and has systematically taken his time to rework all the menus. Tonight was the second night of the new menu at Pepe’s, where Vasquez draws on personal experience, his Sonoran Arizona roots, to craft an exciting menu based on his core culinary philosophy: make food that tastes good and is good for you. This is sometimes a happy coincidence, but for Vasquez it is a cause. His wife Lindsey is a nutritionist, and the two have worked side by side to achieve these goals.
At their own Opal Basil, a tiny and wildly popular place by the Mandeville Trailhead, they perfected this brand of healthy deliciousness, and now it comes to Osman’s group.
We have been less than enthusiastic about all the changes that have come to this group. The tragic loss of a brilliant chef, and a move that involved massive renovations to a new building have made the road forward a bit precarious at times. The last few meals at both restaurants have caused us to put some space between dining experiences, but it just worked for us to visit PePe’s this evening.
Osman has a core group of faithful and excellent employees that move around from location to location, so we are never surprised to see someone from another place.
Our waiter was the same one we had on the last visit to Pardo’s. He is the one that announced the menu was in its second night. There were several things on it we wanted, but the entrees looked especially good.
Tom and I both looked at the Langosta Tamal, which seemed promising until we found out it was lobster. The waiter was still enthusiastic, but we’re not really lobster fans, and there were things we wanted more. ML got just an appetizer - a fried green tomato with Sonoran spiced pulled pork topped with Mole Rojo and Queso Oaxaca. She loved this.I was leaning toward a pork shank with Jalapeno and Prickly Pear reduction until I saw that ML had ordered pork. Since all the other entrees called to me, I settled on a steak called Sabana De Filete with a Corn Salsa and Black Bean Puree, Chili Butter Sauce and a Tres Queso Crumble. Robert explained that the Sabana means flowing like a blanket you might shake out. The steak was thin just like a blanket, but so much was piled on it the wind would not blow it. There was a tomato on top, the three cheeses, flanked in the side by spaghetti squash and grits and black bean puree. This was a fantastic plate of food, like a spicy concert of flavor harmony in your mouth, no matter the combination of foods.
Tom was equally pleased with his plate of simple cheese enchiladas. There was Calabacitas and a Guajillo Sauce as well as Salsa Verde. All this was topped with miscellaneous pieces of squash and other vegetable bits that enhanced these components of the plate just like mine did.
The portion was just right. The spice levels also just right, the food running out just when you are satiated.
Desserts would have been skipped except that Tom eats no Mexican meal that does not end with flan. This was definitely a gourmet version both in looks and taste. Even the blackberries on top had been gourmetized.ML and I broke our cardinal rule of no dessert when Robert mentioned tres leche mousse with almond brittle and churros chips. This would have been excellent if we ate dessert, but it was not chocolate. The churros chips were definitely fun and our curiosity was pleasantly satisfied. A real dessert-eater would have loved this, or the lime panna cotta.
This was a nearly three hour meal, which is our only complaint. We found the pace mystifying, but it was hardly unpleasant. The patio was nice, the weather perfect and the food terrific. What could be wrong with this?