Dave and I were still on our quest for more good Mexican food. So far, we were 1-for-2 in our adventure. However, we were not daunted by the fact that we were only batting .500 for the series. We knew there would be some more great places to find.
One place that I was reminded of was a little tiny restaurant near Camelback Road and I-17. The last time I was in Pepes Taco Villa, I was about 20 years younger and the place was nothing more than the tail end of a small strip mall with about eight tables and a small counter where you ordered and waited for your number to be called.
Dave and I pulled into the parking lot and then walked to what I thought was the front door. The strip mall was still small, but it had seen better days. The sign on the door said to enter further down, so we walked a bit to a second door and that was blocked off. To the third door we went and entered the restaurant. I was quite surprised as Pepes had gone from a little hole-in-the-wall counter Mexican stop to a full-service restaurant with booths and televisions in the corners showing sporting events.
The interior was somewhat dark with a comfortable woodsy feel from the booths and tables. There were Mexican art pieces and plenty of other decorations. The wood beam ceiling gave the whole thing a clubby feel. We were seated at a booth and there were only a few other tables taken at the time. It was past the main lunch hour, so I wasnt surprised.
Within a minute, our server arrived with menus, water and an apology that it would be a few minutes before she could return to take our order. It was a leisurely lunch, so we had no qualms waiting. She did ask us what we wanted to drink and we both ordered Diet Cokes ($1.50 each).
It wasnt more than than a few minutes before another server arrived with chips, two kinds of sauce and our drinks. First, the Diet Cokes were served in very large glasses, probably nearing the 44 ounce mark. (Big points there!). A basket was filled with corn tortilla chips and we were given two condiment bottles. The first featured a thick, green sauce and the second was a thinner red sauce.
The chips were excellent and freshly prepared. They could have been warmer for my tastes, but you couldnt beat the freshness. The red sauce was all about the spice. It was very good and had a solid smokey taste to it. This was in contrast to the green sauce which was closer to a salsa. It was savory and bold, but only had a small kick to it. It was much more rounded in taste than the red sauce, and while we liked both, Dave and I were liberally using the green sauce on our chips.
Our server then took our order. As always, we started with a Cheese Crisp ($5.25). Dave was all over the El Pollo Chimichanga with Red Sauce ($5.95) with the Rice and Beans add on ($2.00). I just wanted some basic comfort food and chose the #5 Combination ($7.25) which had a taco, tostada, enchilada, rice and beans. Our server left and promised us waters and refills on the soda glasses, even though we only had polished off about half of our drinks.
There was probably a 10 minute gap between our ordering and the arrival of our Cheese Crisp. On a large, round, white plate, our tortilla sat covered with cheese. We each grabbed a slice and fought over the green sauce as the accompaniment. The first bite was excellent. The tortilla was perfectly crisp and the cheese still hot and slightly bubbly around the edges. We tried both the red and green sauce on our appetizer and they make this supreme cheese crisp just shine. Dave and I both mentioned that what made this cheese crisp outstanding was the freshness of the tortilla. That disc of flour, lard and water could not have been made more than an hour or so prior to our arrival. I could only imagine how good one of those tortillas would be hot off the grill and slathered with real butter.
We had just finished up the last of the cheese crisp and the chips when our entrees arrived. Daves was all but drooling at his chimichanga. On a large plate a very long chimicanga sat between the rice and beans and the lettuce garnish. It had been fried and then bathed in a red enchilada sauce. A good amount of cheese had been melted on the top. Dave dove in and had a very satisfied look on his face. He said the chicken filling was moist, tender and had plenty of seasoning. He also liked the enchilada sauce and I could see him dragging each bite through the sauce. He told me that I would definitely like the rice and beans which he stated were wonderful.
While Dave was thoroughly enjoying his meal, I dressed my taco and tostada with plenty of the green and red sauce. I was going to make this as decadent as possible. I first tried the taco. It was very good. The fried corn tortilla was perfectly fried and just a slight edge of chewiness to it. The meat was shredded beef and well seasoned and not watery. Lettuce, cheese and a few chunks of tomato finished off, along with my artful use of the sauces. Nothing overly fancy, but just a tasty, well-prepared taco with a fresh corn tortilla.
The tostada was equally as good. I was pleased that they didnt bury the taste of the tortilla, cheese or lettuce with the beans. The tortilla was light and crispy. The enchilada was a basic cheese enchilada, but was searing hot when I finally got to it. The cheese was fully melted and, again, another very fresh tortilla had found its way around the stringy, melted cheese. The enchilada sauce was velvety smooth with a slight bit of spice.
Then I tackled the beans and rice. The beans, like those on the tostada, were excellently prepared. I did notice that the kitchen was not shy in adding a bit of spice to the beans and plenty of garlic. The rice was fantastic. It was a perfect consistency and the pieces of minced garlic were an unexpected surprise. When most places use beans and rice sides as filler, this was a pleasant break from the ordinary.
After a few more rounds of chips and sodas, we decided we had done enough damage for the day. We were pleasantly full and both talked about how Pepes Taco Villa was one of the better, well-rounded Mexican restaurant experiences we had encountered. We got our bill and the total was $27.62, including tax. We both agreed that this was a very good value, just on freshness alone. The service was very good and attentive with drink glasses that never were able to run dry.
As we left, we both said that we would be back to Pepes Taco Villa. I had stayed away from it for far too long.
Those yummy, little Mexican hole-in-the-wall places they grow up so fast!
Pepes Taco Villa
2108 West Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85015
Notes: Closed Tuesdays.