Ole Confidential

Pepe's Taco Villa, 2108 West Camelback, Phoenix, 242-0379. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Childhood myths die hard. Why is it so wrenching to concede that there's no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny and no Tooth Fairy? I guess because it signals a loss of innocence.

Like children, restaurant critics eventually have to give up fairy tales, too. When they first start out on the job, most still innocently believe in the "Undiscovered Cheap Ethnic Gem." According to legend, it's usually a small, tidy, mom-and-pop shack, set in a poor but happy section of town, dishing out glorious authentic, old-country specialties to homesick natives, for about the cost of a used paperback book.

Experience, however, quickly teaches us dining-out professionals otherwise. In the real world, I've discovered that most ethnic places aren't run by refugee chefs who used to cook for their country's ruler until he was deposed. They aren't run by foodies who graduated from their country's top culinary institute. And they aren't run by keepers of tradition, whose grandmothers passed on to them the secrets of the ancient cooking arts.

They're run by folks simply aiming to parlay whatever kitchen skills they possess into a decent living. And most of the time, those kitchen skills are basic. That's why it's not hard to find basically satisfying Asian noodle dishes, Middle Eastern kebab platters and Mexican bean burritos. But where's the magic? Truth be told, the odds of finding stunning, low-cost ethnic fare in this town are about the same as hitting an uncontested jackpot on an Ak-Chin slot machine.

If that's the case, then I probably should have spent last week on the reservation, exchanging 10-dollar bills for rolls of quarters and trying to line up three sevens. That's because I had the good fortune to stumble across two outstanding Mexican restaurants. Both Pepe's Taco Villa and Pan y Mas offer exceptional south-of-the-border fare that left me beaming with admiration.

Plaques lining the back wall at Pepe's attest to the owner's talent for selling cars at Ray Korte Chevrolet through the years. If there were justice in the world, there would also be a wall full of plaques celebrating this kitchen's ability to turn out some of the finest Mexican food in the Valley. In a town full of pathetic Mexican chain fare and nondescript taco parlors, this place is a beacon, a culinary lighthouse.

You might not guess it from the location, on a West Camelback strip just east of I-17. You might not guess it from the plain room, decorated with a bullfighter painting, straw hats and a wire guitar. But all doubts disappear once the food reaches your table.

Fresh, crunchy chips and two chile-packed salsas--one red, one green--get the meal off to a hot start. They set the stage for a barrage of south-of-the-border flavors to come.

If you're here on a Friday night, the oversize bowl of lusty albondigas soup is good for whatever ails you. It's a tomato broth seasoned with chile and cilantro, packed with four tender meatballs and served with a side of rice that you add to the bowl. The only drawback? After you finish it (and you will), you may not be hungry enough to marvel over the rest of the dishes.

Among them would be tacos rancheros, "otra de nuestras exclusivas!!!" says the menu proudly. These are exclusive tacos, indeed: three of them stuffed with spicy, shredded pork pungently lathered with adobo paste, and tossed with cilantro and onions. And the pork's crunchy edge gives these tacos a texture as compelling as their taste.

More taco pleasures await. Tacos Siberia feature chicken, guacamole, chile and thick Mexican cream (not American sour cream) folded into two doubled corn tortillas. But the Tacos Monterrey are the supreme taco effort. They're made from luscious air-dried beef (machacado), teamed with scrambled eggs, tomato, onion and chile. Close your eyes, and you'll think you're in a Mexican village. And though it's doubtful your spirits will need further lifting, the wallet-friendly $3.50 tag will also keep you smiling.

Green corn tamales are a dream--fresh, moist, redolent of corn and chile. In other places, the chile verde burrito would be the star attraction, loaded with tender beef, beans and fragrant green chile. And the creamy enchiladas Suizas are as good as this dish gets, thick with shredded beef and coated with a mild green sauce.

Chile relleno is first-rate, spicy, crunchy, eggy and cheesy, bathed in a lip-smacking red chile sauce. Looking for something different? Try the barbacoa de cabeza, beef head steamed and barbecued. It doesn't taste like anything they serve in gringoland.

The closest thing to gringo here is the chicken chimichanga, a fresh-fried burrito loaded with poultry and topped with excellent guacamole. But compared to everything else, it doesn't have quite the same depth and nuance of flavor.

When I come back to Pepe's, however, it won't be for the tacos, enchiladas Suizas, burritos, tamales, chile relleno, barbacoa or chimichanga. I'm heading straight for the mole.

It's sensational, rich, subtle, exotic and intriguing, an irresistible blend of chiles, spices and chocolate. The kitchen spoons it over three enchiladas stuffed with tender chunks of white-meat chicken. It practically sent me into a swoon.

Pepe's Taco Villa restores the romance of finding the Undiscovered Cheap Ethnic Gem. Who knows? Maybe I'll run across Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster one of these days, too.

Pan y Mas, 3111 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 992-8899. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It's called "The Square": a north Phoenix neighborhood bounded by Greenway Road, Cave Creek Road, Bell Road and 32nd Street. During the past few years, it's become a crowded Mexican enclave, home to an estimated 14,000 residents, many of whom work in the not-too-distant north Scottsdale resorts.

On the area's southeastern fringe, tucked out of sight in a hole-in-the-wall storefront in a sprawling shopping complex, sits Pan y Mas. It doesn't look particularly distinguished. But wait until you taste the food. The cheery mom-and-pop operators cook up some of the best south-of-the-border dishes around, at prices so low you'll think they must be misprints.

The small place is done up in red, white and green, Mexican-flag colors. A colorful mural of pre-Columbian Mexico lines one entire wall. Other decor touches include a sombrero hanging on the wall, a television set over the soft-drink refrigerator case and a sign in Spanish advising folks how to send money to Mexico. You can also watch the family members stirring pots and slapping tortillas on the griddle. There are maybe half a dozen tables--Pan y Mas seems to do mostly takeout.

The kitchen specializes in Yucatan cuisine, intense, fragrant fare that only vaguely resembles the more familiar, it-all-tastes-the-same, Sonoran beef and cheese platters we're used to.

Why, oh why, don't more Mexican restaurants make posole? Pan y Mas puts together a wonderful red chile version, not too spicy, thick with hominy and pork so tender it falls apart at the touch of a spoon. Albondigas soup is just about as satisfying, if not quite as interesting.

Cochinita pibil is a dream. This achiote-marinated, slow-cooked pork tastes like nothing you get in a fast-food parlor. (Achiote is an essential Yucatan flavoring, with a vibrant, pungent, earthy flavor that does for Mexican dishes what saffron does for Spanish cuisine.) Try cochinita pibil on a burrito, fleshed out with cheese, onions and pinto beans. Wow. There's also a chicken version, served in corn tortillas for the rub-your-eyes price of $1.35.

Of course, it also helps when the flour and corn tortillas are topnotch. Pan y Mas' cooks don't get theirs out of a plastic bag--they make their own. You can buy them by the dozen.

Carne deshebrada is a specialty: tender, shredded beef goosed up with a bit of green chile. So is the carne molida, seasoned ground beef that tastes great stuffed into an enchilada and smothered with a bright red chile sauce.

But enchilada honors have to go to the mole enchilada con pollo, a chicken enchilada draped with a mole sauce that's just about in the same class as Pepe's.

The more familiar items also shine. For a change of pace, ask for carnitas (shredded pork) on a torta, a doughy, homemade Mexican roll, instead of a tortilla. There are four kinds of tamales; the cheese-laden green corn model is my favorite. The chorizo con huevo burrito goes miles beyond the competition, because the ground sausage here gets a vigorous Yucatan boost of achiote.

But nothing surpasses Pan y Mas' fresh, magnificent carne asada chimichanga. Is it the homemade flour tortilla, fried to a golden sheen? Is it the stuffing of carne asada pibil, big chunks of tasty beef rolled with cheese and onions? Who cares? The parts are great, and the sum is even better.

Pan y Mas has an additional attraction: a bakery. You don't see display cases filled with authentic Mexican sweets too often in north Phoenix. Look for sweet pumpkin candy; the exotic "yo-yo," a coconut, strawberry and chocolate confection; cream-filled pastry horns; fruit turnovers; and churros. You can even get a Mexican wedding cake.

Although Pan y Mas does takeout business, it shouldn't be confused with a ready-in-one-minute, fast-food shop. Because everything is made to order, you can stand around for half an hour waiting for your order to be filled. To expedite matters, I suggest you first come in to pick up a menu. That way, when the urge to eat phenomenally cheap, tasty, homemade Mexican food strikes, you can call in ahead and not spend 30 minutes, as I did, watching the cook work, inhaling the aromas and drooling in anticipation.

Pepe's Taco Villa:
Chile verde burrito
Chile relleno
Tacos rancheros

Pan y Mas:
Green corn tamale
Carne molida enchilada


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