Pepe Love

Luz Acosta, the owner of Pepe's Taco Villa in west Phoenix, barely took a break from her job to give birth to her first daughter. One day not long ago, she stood very pregnant in the kitchen of her very small restaurant, offering a tour of her restaurant's expansion into the former jujitsu gym next door. (And no, she wasn't barefoot.) Two weeks later, she was bouncing her own expansion, little Jayden, on her lap, sitting in the old dining room where she began waitressing at only 9.

Babies are nothing new at a place that's been in operation as long as Pepe's. "We've watched people grow up here," Luz says, gesturing around the place at the yellow walls adorned with Mexican bullfighting posters and large wooden tables. And now, the birth of the expansion. "Everything is new. The floor, the walls, the tables, the pictures." She points to one that isn't new at all, an oil depicting a flamenco dancer with arms raised and eyes downcast.

Not sure if that dancer is her mom, Luz studies it again. "I think it is -- she's half Spanish," she says of her mom, "and the picture used to be at the house."

Dora Acosta laughs when she hears that. "The whole world thinks that's me. I guess it looks like me when I was young," she says.

In 1981, when Pepe's opened its doors, Luz was not your typical 9-year-old. The young girl shuffled between multiplication and dinner tables. It's what you do when your mom and dad open a restaurant on a whim.

"We're a little different," says Pepe Acosta, who retired after handing over the reins to Luz nine months ago. "Sure, we have the burro, the enchilada and taco but we also have the mole poblano. That's from Puebla. We have chicken enchilada with mole," he says pointing out the different menu that separates Pepe's from your typical Phoenix Mexican restaurant.

But that's not the half of it. He's also brought a little Monterrey, Mexico, to Phoenix -- via a Greyhound bus.

"The machacado con huevo (Tacos Monterrey) -- that's something very special from Monterrey. I'd bring the dry beef from Monterrey, before [there were] distributors. I had so much problems. I had to call my sis in Monterrey. She had to go to Laredo and then ship [the beef on a bus] to Phoenix. Now, it's easy to order."

Acosta's customers were instantly hooked. Many are still regulars who come almost daily for the food his wife Dora perfected in the tiny kitchen. "When we got married, my wife couldn't cook an egg!" Pepe says with a hearty laugh. "She learned from my mom."

Dora was a quick study.

You have to be if you weren't allowed to do anything as a child. "That's the truth. Not even an egg! Everybody laughs. I grew up in Brownsville, we had a maid and were very spoiled. Some families didn't want their daughters doing any work." Things changed when she married Pepe. "I learned everything from my mother-in-law," she says in Spanish.

Including the tacos rancheros. With a recipe exclusive to Pepe's, they feature a kick-ass blend of carnitas (fried pork) cooked with orange peels, pork chorizo, chopped jalapenos and topped with mix of cilantro and onions and wrapped in soft, lightly fried corn tortillas. Aye, Chihuahua, err . . . Monterrey!

Now, after years of serving authentic, unique Mexican fare, Pepe's taking on a more modern look, and more than likely, the place will jump. With bigger crowds and a new bar, a party is bound to happen. That worries the old man. Straight from the old school, Pepe, although supportive of the growth, is a bit concerned about losing the charm and family atmosphere. In days past, Pepe recalls, regulars would willingly give up their seats so the restaurant wouldn't have to turn away hungry new customers craving the food many viewed as foreign.

"It was so moving -- some people would tell me, Pepe, I will finish eating standing, let those people come in and sit.' They were really friends," Acosta says.

"But a lot of things change for the good. Sometimes, for sentimental reasons -- you keep the same things going and going even when it's time to change." He has a simple message for his children. "You can change the tables or the paintings. Just keep two things alive -- the good food that your mother put here and the nice, old friendly atmosphere that I put here with the music."

"The music?" asks Luz, when she learns of her dad's wishes. She laughs. "He worries about everything. I keep hearing that over and over. My dad records everything. He still picks the music."

Makes you wonder if Pepe will still be picking the music when Jayden runs the place.