RoCK to Tio Pepe: Stay with me

Here it is Monday, but it feels like a Friday. In one respect, anyway: I've got a fresh Free Market Friday post from Robert of Cross Keys for you. He sent this to me Friday, but I had to be out of the office most of the day and couldn't post it. I tried to make it up to RoCK by crediting him for a frog photo Meekrat took at Asia Market, but that wasn't good enough. He asked me to hold the post until today, when you'd all be back at work, goofing off, reading the blog. So here's RoCK. LV

Last week I went to Tio Pepe’s with a gift certificate . . . from 1982.

It was around 1982 that I first became familiar with Tio Pepe’s. I didn’t go there back then. I was a kid in Aberdeen and at that time my restaurant world was comprised of the Cloverleaf Diner and the Golden Corral. For fancy occasions, I might end up at the Colonel’s Choice. My parents, on the other hand, would go there for dinner parties or business meetings. I can remember asking to go, hearing: “You wouldn’t like it, it's not for kids.”  In my mind, Tio Pepe’s was the adult restaurant.  It was sophisticated and, if you’ll pardon the Ron Burgundy lingo, classy.   

I never did make it there as a kid. I went to Tio Pepe's for the first time a couple of years ago -- last week was the second. I enjoyed both meals, but something was missing. It was not that they were great once, and now they are bad. It wasn’t Rod Stewart with The Faces compared with Rod Stewart solo. We’re not talking about going from the heights of "Stay with Me" to the depths of "Young Turks." No, this was more like the Rolling Stones. You can still get your fill of the old favorites, but that magic you either heard about or experienced won’t be there.

On this most recent visit I started with a pitcher of sangria. Now, many will dismiss this fruity concoction, but I love it. Sangria is just fun. Think about it: sangria isn’t anything like, say, tequila. No one has too much sangria and starts a fight. Perhaps a song and dance break out, but never a fight.

Next up were appetizers. As a traditionalist, I had to explain to the wife that we were definitely getting the garlic shrimp. She wanted the Mediterranean seafood cocktail. Of course we ended up getting both.

The garlic shrimp were very good. The shrimp were generous in number and very tender. The sauce was both rich and full of garlic flavor, while not being too heavy or bitter. If the bread would have been better, I would have finished off all the sauce. When I talked to people familiar with Tio Pepe, they would always rave about the bread. What I had was cold and doughy. Maybe it was an off night. Maybe in comparison to the awful Italian bread and dinner rolls that were, and still are, a mainstay in this town, the bread at Tio Pepe’s was good in a relative sense.

The Mediterranean seafood cocktail was like something out of the 1950’s. Chilled shrimp, lobster and other seafood mixed with cantaloupe and tossed in Russian or French dressing (I say Russian and the wife says French). The seafood was fresh, but I thought the cantaloupe made the dish too sweet. As for the Russo-Franco dressing, it was not that it didn’t taste good, it was more that is hid the flavor of the seafood.

Next up was the main course. The wife started talking about Dover Sole. Look, I like that fish, but that’s not why I went there. I suggested instead we go with the paella for two. I thought for sure she would fight me, as she normally does whenever I suggest anything that is a one pot or pan dish, like cassoulet or jambalaya, where everything is mixed together. Contrary to my assumption, she embraced the idea.

The paella was simply great. Lobster, clams, muscles, shrimp, veal, chorizo, chicken and vegetables all combined with saffron rice. The key to this good paella, outside of quality ingredients, was cooking it in one pan and cooking it in stages. The one pan allowed the flavors to meld, and it produced those delightful, crunchy pieces that stuck to the bottom. The cooking in stages made it possible to avoid the choice of tender shrimp or undercooked chicken. I found all of the individual ingredients to be cooked perfectly.

Dessert was another show down of tradition versus something new that ended with ordering two things. I went with the pine nut roll. I loved how the salty and crunchy pine nuts played off the sweet cream. The wife had a chocolate roll. It was tasty, but I found it to be simply sweet without any of the contrasting flavors the pine nut roll offered.

The décor at Tio Pepe’s reminded me a little of the house I grew up in back in Aberdeen.  My parents were married in the '60’s, and the furniture they bought had quite the Iberian flair. We had wood carvings of conquistadors, wall moldings of sword fighters, and paintings of Spanish senoras. Tio Pepe’s doesn’t have as much style as my old house, but it definitely has some 1960’s charm to it.

As I sat there, my thoughts turned to what Tio Pepe’s was like back in the '60’s, '70’s and '80’s. I imagined it was quite the scene, filled with smoke and people wearing suits and cocktail dresses.  

You won’t see any of that today. Outside of some flambé dishes, there’s no smoke, which is probably a good thing considering the low ceilings in their cellar dining room. There was a good crowd, but it was by no means filled.  The waiters were still clad in the customary red tuxedos, and some of the diners were wearing jackets or dresses, but I saw a lot of them in jeans and even T-shirts. I’m not talking about designer jeans and T-shirts, and I wouldn’t have considered that OK, but one guy was in there wearing a Drexel University Alumni T-shirt. Really? You go to Tio Pepe’s and you opt to wear something from the college bookstore? At one time, the manager would have given him a jacket to wear while dining.  Today, nobody wants to hassle anyone.  The individual comfort of this guy and others like him comes at the expense of the Tio Pepe experience, which is a loss for all of us.  

I was able to experience the food, the drink and the décor of Tio Pepe’s, but I really would have liked to have been a part of its old magic. Then again, I also missed out on the Faces. Unfortunately, time, just like Ronnie Wood, moves on.

Tio Pepe's sangria. Sun photo by Kim Hairston. See RoCK's photos of his trip to Tio Pepe’s.


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