Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Unexpected Find

Sometimes frustration leads to an unexpected find that makes it all worthwhile. Little did I know as I set out to pick my husband up from the airport that I was in for just such an experience.

We had been planning a nice dinner at one of the Disney restaurants, but when I called there were no reservations available at any of our favorite, or even the peripheral "well, we'll eat there if nothing else is available" spots. Apparently the combination of Valentines Day weekend and Presidents Day weekend was enough to destroy any chance of last-minute dining plans.

Oh well, we figured we'd go for our old standby, Chevy's. They have call-ahead seating, so that would minimize the wait among the tourist hoardes...or so I thought. An inner voice urged me to call just to see if they were doing call-ahead that night. The person who answered said "yes" but was promptly shot down by a frantic voice in the background: "Tell them we're all booked up!" It's impossible to be "booked up" with call-ahead, since a person calls when they leave home and is placed on the list; thus, most of their wait time is over when they arrive. I think it's more likely that the hostesses didn't want to deal with angry patrons who see someone being seated immediately when they've been waiting 45 minutes.

With that option gone, we decided to go to Don Pablos, which is very similar to Chevy's and is located not too far from the airport's North Exit. Since it was only 6 p.m., we thought we might beat much of the crowd. As we approached, I could see that the parking lot was empty...good sign. No, wait, bad sign! It was totally empty! Yet another of our regular haunts had bit the dust.

Hubby hadn't had lunch, and I'd only had a light bite myself, so we were ready to nosh. We decided to continue down Semoran Blvd. and see what we might run into. We knew that most restaurants would be jam packed, but at that point beggars couldn't be choosers.

Unfortunately Semoran is a gauntlet of traffic lights every other block, perfectly timed to ensure that you have to stop at every one. Our progress felt like mere inches as our stomachs rumbled and we scanned the neon-lit horizon. All around us were gas stations and fast food outlets, but nothing within the sit-down dining realm.

On and on, we drove...if you can call the stop-start-stop-start of the red light gauntlet "driving." Finally I noticed a little unassuming restaurant coming up on my right, with a sign announcing "Mexican Food." The forever-lost taste of Don Pablo still lingered on my tongue, so we decided to give it a whirl.

Our expectations weren't overly high, as we've never, ever found real, true, honest-to-goodness authentic Mexican food in Florida. I don't expect the chains to be authentic; while I enjoy Chevy's, I view it as being perhaps just a bit more authentic than Olive Garden. Chevy's has wonderful food, but it doesn't fulfill my taste for the real thing.

I developed my craving for authentic Mexican food back in my teen years. I grew up in a heavily Mexican neighborhood and babysat for a Mexican family. At their home, I learned to appreciate the cuisine of their native country.

We were lucky enough to have some wonderful Mexican restaurants in that area, too. My first apartment was right around the block from the main drag in a "Little Mexico" neighborhood, with three great eateries within walking distance of my front down. But my favorite was actually a chain called Pepe's. By "chain," I don't mean Taco Bell or even Chevy's. It was a small franchise, with locations only in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, and I think that most of them were family owned. While the quality of the food varied by location, most Pepe's were a gastronomic delight.

It was rough to move from that area to Kissimmee, where Mexican restaurants are plentiful but where authenticity is lacking. There are some I would peg as "okay," but nothing that even comes close to Pepe's. Every time I return to Chicago, Pepe's is included on my gastronomic city tour, along with Beggar's Pizza, JR's Hot Dogs, and Lawry's The Prime Rib (all things I've never found an equivalent for in the Sunshine State).

I didn't have high hopes for the little restaurant, particularly since it was housed in a building that I suspect was a Taco Bell in its former life. It had been converted to a rather unassuming sit-down place, and we plopped down and hoped for the best.

The menu actually gave me some hope. It featured dishes you don't normally find in a place aimed at the unadventurous diner who thinks a taco is the epitome of good Mexican eating. It had things like menudo (tripe soup), lengua (tongue), fried pork skin, and some sort of beef head dish (barbacoa?). That last one brought back memories of the Mexican markets in my teenage years, where whole heads stared blindly through the glass at the butcher's counter.

Initially we were among only a handful of patrons, but as others trickled in I could see that we were in the ethnic minority...another promising sign. I dunked a chip into the salsa, took a bite, and was instantly transported back to Chicago. The salsa was virtually identical to Pepe's! If I didn't know better, I would have believed that's just what I was eating. Even though I knew I should save room for the meal, I plowed through the chips with the lust of someone re-discovering their long-lost love.

Amazingly, the food was just as delicious and authentic as the salsa. I had gotten a combination plate, but the best item had to be the quesadilla. Unlike the usual flour taco-encased version, this one had thick Mexican cheese between fried corn tortillas. Mmmmmmm! They served corn tortillas with hubby's fajitas too, which is rare to see but is the true authentic way. To me, flour tortillas are a sign of the Americanized palate. I remember the dad of the family I baby sat eating corn tortillas with virtually everything and preparing them by simply turning on the gas burner and tossing the tortilla over the flame.

It was a long drive home, made more tedious by the red-light gauntlet, but it didn't seem so bad with my stomach basking contentedly. We had grabbed a take-out menu so we could easily return (the restaurant is called Tortilleria El Rey). The only thing that would have made our new find ideal is if they had served fideo (a delicious Mexican "spaghetti soup" that is rarely found in restaurants but is a common in-home comfort food).

It had been a decidedly "different" day from what we had planned, but with an unexpectedly happy ending. When I get a taste for Pepe's I won't have to hop a plane to Chicago...although with the traffic light gauntlet, I would probably get to Pepe's more quickly!

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Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I live in Davenport. One of my neighbors (from Mexico) found a great new Mexican restaurant in the Crossroads Area. It's called Vallarta Mexican Grill and is in the plaza across from the Ale House (next to the Steak & Shake) on Apopka Vineland Rd. Really, just a bit futher down the road from Chevy's. I haven't been yet, but she says it's excellent.

I'm planning a group bday party there later this month and will let you know.

Their phone number is 407-238-5300.



amy said...

Hi! I also live in Celebration but work in Kissimmee. What do you think of Giribali's (sp)? There is one around Sand Lake and one on 192 near John Young. I went there for lunch today and was impressed with the chili relleno.