Tio Pepe is Baltimore's best example of the Great Eating Out Paradox. The more health conscious Americans get, the more they don't want spa cuisine when they go out for dinner. Bring on the roast suckling pig, the lakes of hollandaise sauce, the cake rolls oozing pastry cream.
Tio Pepe delivers. One thing I can promise: You will never see the word "lite" on its menu, which has been essentially the same for the 30-some years I've been reviewing restaurants.
If I had to pick one dish that epitomized Tio Pepe's Continental and regional Spanish cuisine, it would be the Blue Point oyster appetizer, a specialty of the chef, Emiliano Sanz. There are six of these sweet beauties on the half shell, as big as a man's fist. They have been sprinkled with lump crab meat and then totally covered in a fabulously rich champagne sauce and lightly browned. If I ate the whole thing, I would be finished for the night. Instead I fork out the hot, fat oysters and some of the lumps of crab. I leave most of the sauce behind.
Excess is what Tio Pepe does best. If you're worried about your waistline, go somewhere else.
The kitchen, which is handling an enormous number of dinners, miraculously doesn't oversalt the food or overcook the seafood. The look of the plate isn't always top priority, but other than that it's hard to complain about the fat shrimp and scallops in more (a lot more) of that champagne sauce, or a huge hunk of salmon broiled and served with bearnaise sauce.
A popular lunch salad of seafood and fruit is an appetizer at dinner. Once again, the presentation could be spiffier. (OK, it's downright ugly, and garnished with a slice of hard-boiled egg no less.) But there's no faulting the combination of shrimp, scallops, lump crab, melon and pineapple tossed in a delicately pink mayonnaise.
Tio Pepe has its more refined moments, like the full-flavored black bean soup, sparked with sherry and as smooth as brown velvet. Or the perfectly cooked fresh green beans or the spinach sauteed with pine nuts and green grapes. You could say the same about the fat raspberries and strawberries and their silky sabayon sauce (a custard of mostly egg yolks and sugar).
Sometimes, though, the kitchen wanders off track. The poetically named mushrooms from the caves of Segovia on toast are covered in a sort of imperial sauce heavily accented with nutmeg and stuck under the broiler. The mushrooms are lost.
Tournedos Tio Pepe -- one would guess a specialty of the house, given the name -- are fine pieces of beef, but their oddly flavored sherry sauce detracts rather than adds. A serving of soft shell crabs features three huge (what else) specimens, battered and fried and covered in toasted almonds. A lemon butter sauce comes in a cup on the side. The result is heavy and unappealing.
It almost goes without saying that someone at the table should try one of the cake rolls, which Tio Pepe is famous for. The chocolate roll filled with whipped cream is my current favorite; these days the pastry cream that fills the pine nut and walnut rolls is for some reason a strange orange color. I don't remember that from previous visits.
It's always festive in Tio Pepe's cozy little basement rooms, with their whitewashed stone walls, wrought iron chandeliers, colorful Spanish pottery and shawls. It's also always close quarters. The tables are packed together, and the numerous staff members have to weave their way around customers. For some reason that's part of its appeal.
At first we were seated at a terrible table -- the one closest to the bar where people were smoking, and also closest to the crowd waiting for their tables. Not to mention the inconsiderate people next to us taking 50 flash photos when five would do. When we asked if we could switch, the maitre d' told us no other table was available. Did we want to wait? We said never mind.
To our surprise, he turned up before we had ordered to show us to another, much better table. Everything, including our drinks, was moved for us. It was adroitly done.
Tio Pepe. You have to love the place. It's been around so long it's starting to seem trendily retro, serving up to the well-heeled massive portions of comfort food with lots of Spanish charm.
Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
Service: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)
Atmosphere: *** (3 STARS)
Where: 10 E. Franklin St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, nightly for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7.50-$14.25; Entrees: $17.75-$35.75
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *