Among those who take their ethnic restaurants seriously, ambiance, service, and even taste of the food take back seats to how closely the meals hew to authenticity. This zeal for the real deal, however, manifests itself to different degrees according to genre of cuisine. Most foodies won't fret that smoked salmon carpaccio isn't exactly a staple of the traditional Italian dinner table, and few will quibble if their bouillabaise shows no trace of John Dory. But if the owner of a Mexican dining establishment dares to Americanize a taco, responses are apoplectic: "What a joke! The stuff they serve here is nothing like what people eat in Mexico!"
Some will no doubt react this way to Pepper's Burrito Grill, which pulled into South Beach last July 4. Maria G. Gutierrez, owner of Mi Rinconcito Mexicano, needn't worry about such backlash. Her Calle Ocho restaurant is bundled with bona fides, starting with the sparse nature of the room: a tiled floor with wooden tables and chairs generously spaced apart, a counter with stools, a blackboard posting daily specials (such as albondigas with chipotle sauce), and sombreros, panchos, and murals on the walls. It is roomier than Rinconcito's former locale across the street and, as in Mexico, is set up as though the only reason in the world that restaurants exist is for people to sit while enjoying food, drink, and company.
The alluringly fresh fare, too, touts a stripped-down appeal. Guests are started with thick tortilla chips and thin, potent red salsa; guacamole — a fresh mash of avocado, onions, and cilantro — is good but pricey at $5.50. Tacos translate to soft corn tortillas rolled around your choice of savorily marinated pork; game-flavored lamb; exceptionally tender, slightly spicy tongue; ground beef; chicken; chorizo, and so forth. Only onions and cilantro are tucked into the wrap along with the meat, and a wedge of lime and a fiery poke of hot sauce are available if requested. An order of three is $5; with rice and beans, $8.95. Other taqueria-style offerings include a trio of crisply griddled quesadillas; flautas; and sopes, softly fried masa cakes capped with refried pinto beans, lettuce, onions, queso blanco, and beef, chicken, or pork.
The kitchen kicks out some home-cooked specialties not often found in Miami's Mexican-American restaurants. There's menudo (tripe stew) as well as pozole, a chili-spiked stew of pork, ham hock, and hominy served with limes, chopped onion, oregano, tortillas, and avocado slices atop shredded lettuce. One of the half-dozen Mexican beers ($3) will befriend this fare better than horchata, but still sample the homemade cinnamon-spiked rice drink, if even for dessert.
Just as Rinconcito's food, beverages, and ambiance might remind you of Mexico, the service is the friendly, efficient sort routinely encountered at cantinas — which is to say better than at your typical South Florida establishment. Maria's daughters, Joana Gutierrez and Candy Gonzalez, lead the talented staff.
Service is likewise solid at Pepper's Burrito Grill — that's because patrons put in the orders themselves. The small restaurant's faux brick walls and warm colors make it seem almost rustic, but in a modern fast-food way. After making their selections, customers head for outdoor tables set away from Washington Avenue, where you can almost feel as though you're dining alfresco on some featureless street in Tijuana.
The burrito ($6.99 to $7.99) here is a bulky, San Francisco-style wrap. Its soft flour tortilla gets warmed on the griddle and packed with fresh Mex-style rice, refried beans, lettuce, grated cheese, pico de gallo, and choice of main protein — which in the case of a "classic" is ground beef or juicy strips of grilled chicken or steak. Other recommended renditions include the al pastor (adobo-marinated pork and grilled pineapple) and a fish burrito of beer-battered tilapia jacked with chipotle mayo.
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The pick of taco stuffers is pretty much the same as those of the burritos — pork, chicken, steak, and the like. When it comes to preparing them, however, Pepper's Grill plays both sides of the culinary fence: You can get one in a hard shell with lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream, and cheese — or à la mex, a soft corn tortilla squired solely by cilantro and onions (not much different from the one at Mi Rinconcito). Tacos are $2.99 to $3.99 each, but you can nab two for the price of one every Monday from 4 to 10 p.m.
The rest of the menu runs the gamut from A to C: A. quesadillas, B. fajitas, and C. enchiladas. The last come as three soft corn tortillas filled with chicken, cheese, or beef; baked with tomatillo salsa; and topped with sour cream, chopped onion, and melted Chihuahua (the cheese). Unfortunately, the tartness of tomatillo toppled all other tastes.
Salads are big bowls of crisp greens, tomatoes, and grilled chicken garnished with either roasted peppers and cilantro dressing or an avocado-chipotle mixture. Each goes for $7.99, but a smaller house version without the bird is $4.99. Bottles of Corona, Modelo, and Dos Equis lead the list of quenchables ($5.50); soft drinks and "Merlo" are also poured. Rule of thumb: Never inspect the house wine label in a Mexican fast-food joint.
Pepper's stays open till 6 a.m., so tortilla cravings need never go unanswered. This is worth noting, for while few would deny the merits of genuine Mex over gringo Mex, sometimes, especially in a late-night pinch, a taco is just a taco.