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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007

Rockin’ Good Time

Pepe’s Mexican cantina

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Every iota of Pepe’s Rockn’ Taco Shack seems to scream, “We’re here to have a good time!” Brothers Oscar and Ozzy Ibarra, who also own CO2 Ultralounge, opened the Mexican cantina in the revamped space formerly occupied by Sol Fire on Farwell Avenue. With classic Mexican movie posters, boldly colored walls and hand-painted wooden tables and chairs, Pepe’s is the type of place where you loosen your tie as you walk through the door.

“Many of the Mexican restaurants in town all look the same with their Mayan art and sombreros,” general manager Cecil McGrew explains. “We wanted to be more fun and abstract. We want you to sit down and not be bored.”



Money-saving food and drink specials served Sunday through Thursday act as a great incentive to give this East Side joint a try. “We’re confident that once we get you in here, we’re going to win you over with the food,” McGrew says. So whether these specials flirt with the inner frat boy in you (Game Day Sunday: 20 tacos and a margarita pitcher for $25) or your cheap romantic side (Date Night Wednesday: two specialty entrees and a free margarita pitcher), the Ibarra brothers are making it worth your while to stop in. Pepe’s understands how East Side parking can cramp your style, so they provide free valet parking on the weekends.



At the Shack, you won’t find the dictionary-sized menu customary at many Mexican restaurants. Rather, expect one of a more compact nature, with key south-of-the-border staples and some real showstoppers. Ease into your meal with a Mexican soda or a pitcher of Pepe’s watermelon margarita. Along with a full bar, the cantina also infuses two different tequilas: one with pineapple and jalapeos, the other with whole vanilla bean and cinnamon. From the appetizers—go ahead, throw your diet to the wind—order the lusty molten cheese chorizo dip. The Our Lady of Guadalupe candle flickering on the tabletop somehow brings balance to the whole sinful affair.



Keep your server close as the menu has its own unique language and the margaritas are likely to take hold—shrimp are referred to as sea-monkeys, chickens are yard birds, beef is ground cow and fish is water meat. Then there’s the Pepe-or-gringo-style thing.



“Pepe-style is traditionally how you’d eat a taco,” McGrew explains. “It comes on a corn tortilla with onions, cilantro, fresh avocado and a slice of lime on the side. I was programmed to eat my tacos gringo-style, with lettuce, tomato and sour cream. Oscar told me to eat it the traditional way and the flavor profile totally changed. You actually get more flavor out of the meat with the onion and cilantro rather than covering it up with the sour cream. We suggest everyone here order at least one taco Pepe-style.”



The Tito’s aquatic burrito could very well be the best in the city (challengers?): Battered tilapia gets cozy with fresh avocado, lettuce, cabbage, cilantro rice, pico de gallo and a pretty darn fabulous house-made dill sauce; which, like all the salsas, is made fresh every morning. Rather than making one monstrous burrito, the Shack delivers this bad boy as a set of twins—one for eating at the restaurant and one for later, if you will. The chimi…whatever is a deep-fried tortilla filled with, well, whatever—pulled yard bird, cow or spicy pig. This crispy chimi isn’t sophisticated, but it is good. At the meal’s end, a complimentary pair of soft, sugary churros is delivered to the table. By serving quality Mexican food with a SoCal twist, the Shack is convincing people they don’t have to go to Fifth Street for good Mexican; the East Side has it too.



Located at 2014 N. Farwell Ave. Phone: 271-7465. Web site: www.myspace.com/pepestaco. Brunch: Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Sunday-Wednesday 5-10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.