LITTLE ROCK Pepe had us at “Margaona.”
If the long-of-mustache, sombrero-wearing, thumbs-upping cartoon character mascot gave us any doubts about Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant, the latest eatery to gamble on a seemingly doomed 12th Street spot (that has housed everything including Bojangles, Chinese buffets, catfish businesses, a Say MacIntosh place and Mama Bea’s Big Burgers), they were quickly drowned out by this doozy of a signature drink.
A work of not just spirits but sculpture and physics, the Margarona ($7.25) arrived as a salt-rimmed goblet of strong, slushy margarita with a cold, inverted 7-ounce bottle of Corona plunged into it.
There’s no way to lift the concoction with civility (then again, if you ordered a margarita with a beer sprouting from it, protocol probably isn’t your No. 1 priority). So the drinker must bow to it, lowering the head 1970s-drinking-bird-style and sipping through a straw.
Speaking of lifting, we’d have to be lifted off the floor if we had attempted a second. The first — and only — had us featherbrained before the beer had even flowed in. For those looking for something less strong, there’s beer (bottles to pitchers, $1.75 to $5.95), regular margaritas ($3.75-$6.50) and, in addition to soft drinks, a nothing-special fruit punch ($1.80).
The restaurant is owned by Jose Rivera, owner of Cancun in Arkadelphia (not affiliated with Cancun in Jacksonville).
Exterior neon and interior faux flora, festive flags and bold walls perk up Pepe’s, which can seem desolate at night, even though it’s just off busy University Avenue. Surely the large slanted windows make the space sunnier during the day. (We did not visit Pepe’s at 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily lunch, where choices range from $3.65 for a taco with rice and beans up to $6.75 for fajitas.)
The staff is friendly and efficient. Our server always had one eye on the tables and one eye on the telenovela on the flat-screen.
Beyond the complimentary flask of peppery, pulpy salsa served with unsalted chips, Pepe’s satiny, slightly spicy white cheese dip ($2.95 small, $5.95) is a fine place to begin. Skip the guacamole ($2.95 small, $5.95), which hinted of filler and fustiness.
The Shrimp Mexican Salad ($7.55), featuring cheese-covered and seasoned grilled shrimp and green pepper with a bit of lettuce, avocado and red tomato slices, was not so much a salad. And it was not so much a starter, appearing almost at the same time as our entrees. But we enjoyed it.
Categories of the manageable menu include seafood, fajitas, grilled plates, vegetarian, specialties, combinations, nachos, sides and a la carte, with prices ranging from $1.35 for one beef taco to $11.55 for Steak Ranchero. Most single meals are well below $10, with a few dinners for two priced at $16.95-$22.50.
We split that $22.50 entree, the Parrillada Mexicana — a sizzling array of strips of beef and chicken, shrimp, pork tips and zippy chorizo that falls under the “fajitas” header, meant to feed two.
But two more could have joined us for the copious portion of protein, plus tortillas, plus fixings, plus two superfluous Mexican grilled cheese sandwiches (which they call quesadillas). While the meats all were tasty and tender, the pork got tough when reheated.
Similarly satisfying and plump pork pieces, simmered with seasonings in orange juice, made up the Carnitas ($9.75), served with standard rice, beans and a guacamole salad.
We took a chance on the fish tacos plate ($8.85), not knowing by the description (and we quote verbatim, “three fish soft tacos serve with Mexican rice, grill veggies and lettuce on it, with special sauce”) what kind of fish or preparation we’d be receiving.
We’re glad we didn’t know. Because foil-wrapped flour tortillas that bundled crispfried catfish, corn (!), lettuce, onion and — wait, was that zucchini? — might not have sounded that good on paper, but were pleasing to the palate, especially with a dab of the tartar-sauce-esque dressing that we also realize does not sound that good on paper.
What does look good on paper: Pepe’s desserts, including sopapillas ($4.25), fried ice cream ($4.55), flan ($3.65) and a Cheese Cake Chimichanga ($4.95). We were too full — or is that fuddled? — to try them.
Address: 5900 W. 12th St., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily Cuisine: Mexican Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Yes Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes; drive-through available for call-ahead orders (501) 296-9494
Weekend, Pages 29 on 09/22/2011
Print Headline: Pepe’s menu, Margarona lift spirits