Mi Shell-Shocked

Buildings may crumble, relationships may fall apart. But tacos, they're supposed to stay together. The sad fact is that it's practically impossible to find a hard-shell taco that doesn't fall apart at first bite.

Try Tacos Pepe.

This Scottsdale taco shop offers a taco with juicy shredded beef housed in a hard shell that won't crumble, leaving you scrambling for a fork -- or your fingers.

Surprisingly, Pepe's proprietors insist it's the juices that keep the meat and loads of cheese and lettuce together in the shell -- not the shell itself.

"The juices keep it from being too crispy," says Rey Ruiz, one of seven brothers who own and operate the two Pepe's taco shops. (The second is in Apache Junction.)

"We use a chuck roll, boil it and shred it. The meat tends to stay moist," says Ruiz, explaining how that softens up the tasty, fried corn tortilla from a tortilla factory in Phoenix.

The food is prepared fresh every morning. Beans are boiled and then fried.

Then, there's the red salsa. Ruiz won't divulge the "simple" recipe but hints that chiles and garlic cloves are "lightly roasted." Too much, and you'll kill the taste, he says.

A new salsa bar will include a green salsa, a roasted chipotle salsa and a habanero salsa guaranteed to kick your butt along with the usual spicy carrots and jalapeños.

Judging from the steady stream of customers toting off plastic bags filled with other items like carne asada burritos, shrimp tacos and chicken quesadillas, the place should be called In-N-Out Tacos. Ruiz estimates that 75 percent of his business is takeout.

The place isn't much to look at inside. Purple, yellow, red and green walls do clash with remnants of outdated art deco. "I guess we can fix it up to not clash too much, but we like the cooking aspect [more]," Ruiz says apologetically -- almost. "It's not real flashy." There are plans to redecorate, eventually, including a customer's promise to make a trek to Nogales for new furnishings.

For a real taco lover, a firm shell and the promise of a new salsa bar are much more important.

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Dan Cortez