Peppers has been going strong in Pacific Grove for 16 years.
Thursday, August 8, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Hot Stuff-more than just rice and beans is on the plate at Peppers.
The entryway at Peppers may boast the highest population per square foot in Monterey County. Show up without reservations during peak times and you''ll be sentenced to the waiting bench to learn how it feels to be a hungry voyeur at a banquet, forced to watch people happily gorge themselves at the bar and window counter.
It''s enjoyable to dine in a place where the pleasure factor is high and highly contagious.
Peppers opened a few blocks from the beach in Pacific Grove in 1986, and reflects its place and time. Nothing has been visibly changed and there is no sign of aging beauty, no hints that a facelift might be a good idea sometime soon.
The authentically "distressed" wood floors and blond wood furniture are simple. Color is provided by copious art-a huge, red papier-mâche pepper, audacious paintings of peppers, botanical drawings of peppers, and more. Three cooks-Manuel, Jesus, and Harry-have been in the kitchen since the beginning, a strong indicator of things going very right.
I dine at Peppers often and it''s always thoroughly relaxing. This is most likely because management never relaxes. Scott Gonzalez, co-owner with wife Linda, is like a lifeguard, scanning the dining room continuously, looking for signs of danger. You get the feeling a high-volume restaurant can spin out of control quickly.
The Gonzalezes define their place as a Mexican-Latin American seafood grill. They borrow from everywhere in the region, including Central America and the Caribbean. Linda is a vegetarian, and therefore all soups, stocks, beans, and sauces are vegetable based, unless noted. Sauces tend to be lighter than in many Mexican restaurants, and those such as the enchilada sauce are thickened with pureed vegetables, rather than starches or flours. All this adds up to flavor and freshness.
The housemade chips and two salsas-tangy, green tomatillo and the spicier red chili-tomato-turn every customer into a high-speed chip grinding machine. Try to use restraint. You''ll want to try as many of the affordably priced menu items as you can.
The distillation process is one of the few good things the Spaniards imparted to the Mexicans, but unfortunately you can''t drink the distilled juice of the blue agave plant (tequila) at Peppers. Fermented agave wine is served in its place. It tastes just like tequila, but after a wine margarita, my senses were fully intact. The wine simply doesn''t have tequila''s sensory fringe benefits. The non-agave wine and beer selection is pretty good, with 15 wines by the glass (more in bottles) and 19 beers.
Scott goes to Monterey''s Wharf Two to hand select fish, so it''s always advisable to take advantage of that. My three favorite entrees are seafood dishes, but on my last visit I discovered two exceptional meat dishes.
Don''t be confused by the two menus, permanent and specials. The long, handwritten list of specials only changes slightly to accommodate seasonal availability and the rare new dish. You''ll find two of the best items on that menu: seafood tacos and seafood fajitas.
The fajitas come with grilled vegetables, otherwise the dishes are similar. Both are make-it-yourself with grilled sea-food (usually salmon or halibut) placed in corn or flour tortillas. Rice, black beans, guacamole, lettuce with cheddar and jack cheeses, and salsa fresca are on the side. It sounds simple, but Pepper''s does these dishes better than anyone.
If red meat does more for your soul than seafood does for your heart, Tacos al Carbon is a succulent skirt steak version of the seafood tacos. Elsewhere on the meat front, the chili verde is excellent. It comes with a warning about spiciness, but I found the heat to be moderate in this classic dish of pork with a hearty sauce of green chilis and onions.
The standard entrees found at traditional Mexican restaurants are offered as well as jazzier recipes. Combination platters of all the usual suspects cost $6.95, $9.95, and $12.50 for one, two or three items. Most entrees range from $7.95 to $12.95. Generally, prices are reasonable for what you get.
Favorite entree #3 is roasted red pepper and garlic snapper. If it''s true that garlic has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, then this dish should be regulated as a drug, it has such a shocking quantity of garlic.
You think you''ve had quesadillas, but Peppers combines cheese with artichokes, roasted red peppers, onions, two toasted tortillas, and guacamole. It''s nearly a meal for $5.95. Another worthy small dish is chili chipotle garlic mushrooms-it''s just that with fresh corn in a tomato-based sauce on a tortilla. It''s sweet, it''s spicy, and if you can''t stand the heat, stay out of the mushrooms ($5.50).
Exert the willpower to take some dinner home for tomorrow''s lunch and reward yourself immediately with dessert. Fans of flan will appreciate the dense, almost cake-like interpretation, with lusty cinnamon and a spot of whipped cream.
Peppers delivers one of the most consistently satisfying restaurant experiences around. Each visit fulfills a certain expectation, offers a fundamental consistency, and yet produces delightful surprises.