Cafe Reviews

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.

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Howard Seftel