Improvisation That Proves Delicious
As a bibliophile, I judge books by their covers all the time. In a Barnes & Noble, this tendency serves me well. In most other areas of life, however, it does not.
Take restaurants, for example. Scratch the surface of some understated exteriors, and you just might find some unexpected culinary delights like Los Pepes Mexican Grill in Palm Desert, where improvisation, creativity, and the blending of flavors reign supreme.
Located in the Bristol Farms shopping center at Monterrey and County Club Drive in Palm Desert; Los Pepes is situated in a mellow part of town. At 6:30 pm, however, I found Los Pepes packed with people. Only one table was open when I arrived, and, thankfully, it was mine. The atmosphere was lively but not too loud for conversation. The place is unpretentiously decorated and fairly well lit. Even though it’s not needed, a candle burned in the middle of each table, more for ambience than out of necessity. It’s a simple, comfortable décor.
Upon opening the menu, I was reminded of Armando’s Dakota Bar and Grill on El Paseo, most notably known for their very potent margaritas. The first half of Los Pepes’ menu is a complete listing of tequilas, margaritas, martinis, cocktails, wines, and beers. Not one to shun the opportunity to provide a full report on all that Los Pepes has to offer, I enjoyed a classic margarita whose potency rivaled that of Armando’s.
For the rest of my dinner, I solicited the help of Pepe Ortega, the owner of Los Pepes. He and his wife, Sylvia, have run Los Pepes for the past six years, with Pepe handling mostly the front of the house while Sylvia oversees the back of the house. As Pepe explains it, their menu is the result of combining their varied Mexican backgrounds – he’s from rural Durango, and she’s from more metropolitan Michoacan – with a bit of improvisation for a melding of flavors that work really well together.
Los Pepes’ creative house specialties are what sets them apart. Take the Crabmeat and Shrimp Salad Cancun. My initial thought was, ‘There’s nothing special about this salad.’ Despite its unassuming appearance, however, the first bite packed a surprisingly fresh taste with bright flavors. Made with butter lettuce, diced papaya, diced avocado, chopped red onions, crabmeat, shrimp, and citrus dressing, the combination of ingredients really complimented each other.
I shared with Pepe that I am a menudo and mole (pronounced “mo – lay”) girl. Aside from being my favorite Mexican dishes, I have found that not all Mexican restaurants can do them well, especially mole, a sauce made of chocolate, peanuts, and chile that typically goes over poultry. Menudo and mole are the two dishes that have become my gold standard for a good Mexican restaurant.
So, for part of the main course, Pepe brought out Crepas De Mole – two crepes filled with moist chicken and steamed celery, topped with mole sauce. It was delicious, and the best part was the cinnamon added into the sauce for a little zing of spice at the end of each bite.
The other half of the main course was Los Pepes’ Durango Burrito, another house specialty, which is a wet green-style burrito of shredded beef smothered in spicy jalapeño and cilantro-mayo sauces topped with cheese and sour cream. The sauce on this burrito looked and tasted fresh, too. Never did any plate come out looking like it had been nuked in the microwave or left to sit on the kitchen window for a long time, reassuring evidence that most everything at Los Pepes is made to order using homemade ingredients.
I say “most” because the only thing that isn’t made on site is the Sticky Toffee Pudding. That doesn’t take away from how good it is, though. The portion is just the right size to share, with plenty of sweet bread pudding, vanilla ice cream, and sticky toffee sauce for two.
For the last six years, Pepe and Sylvia have been playing with their food and creating improvisational art to the delight of their guests. They definitely have a following, and I’m glad I decided to drop by to get to know these low-key, but passionate restaurateurs.
If You Go – Los Pepes Mexican Grill – 73-091 Country Club Drive, Ste.A-6, Palm Desert. 760.779.8977
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(as originally published in The Bottom Line Magazine and at http://psbottomline.com/community/on-your-plate/improvisation-that-proves-delicious on February 9, 2012 in Volume 31 Issue 12)