Tio Pepe, when we first visited, was very nice, very pleasant, and very, very empty. It was Monday, of course. A quiet night for most restaurants. Even so, the waiter seemed startled to see us. He was finishing his dinner when we arrived and was watching a soap opera -- Una Vez Tendremos Alas ("One day, we'll all have wings"). I think he took us for people who'd popped in to ask directions.
Once he understood that we wanted to eat, he turned off the television, and I wished he hadn't. I love those Mexican telenovelas. Everyone cries so easily. Cries so copiously. All those stricken faces. All that streaked mascara. What a hoot!
Without the TV, Tio Pepe's can be somewhat grave. There's a large picture of a bullfight here and a reproduction of Goya's The Executions of the Third of May, 1808 -- the freedom fighter with arms raised as he stands before the firing squad, daring those soldiers to shoot him. He looks ecstatic, welcoming that fusillade, happy to die in so noble a cause.
And then there's the flamenco singing. On tape this night. Though Tio Pepe claims to have a resident guitarist, he was nowhere in evidence. (He was, I suspect, back in the kitchen, watching Una Vez Tendremos Alas and crying his eyes out.) Songs in the flamenco style, I must admit, are not my cup of tea. My, but those people do carry on so. How they love to gnash their teeth. How they love to suffer. There's something shameless about it, and I find myself wishing they'd learn self-restraint. Life is awful, yes. But it can be borne. All you have to do is roll with the punches.
"This is depressing me," said my companion. "If I stay here much longer, I'll end up back in therapy."
But that didn't happen, because our appetizers arrived: a plate of tapas ($7.25) comprising ham, chorizo and cheese. All three were delicious. The chorizo is made on the premises, I was told, using a Spanish recipe. This is not as fiery as Mexican chorizo, but it's expertly seasoned -- lots of Spanish paprika -- and beautifully calibrated. I could eat this chorizo till the cows came home.
The ham is the famous jamon de serrano made in Extremadura, an autonomous region in western Spain where farmers raise a pig known as the black foot and feed it nothing but acorns. The meat is seasoned with paprika and olive oil and then cured outdoors just as prosciutto is. But it's infinitely more delicate. The Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega said once, "Life is but an empty sham / without a slice of Spanish ham." Tio Pepe convinced me that he was absolutely right.
I'd half-hoped that I'd find on Tio Pepe's menu faisan al modo Alcantara, a culinary masterpiece also from Extremadura: pheasant marinated in port and stuffed with truffles, then roasted and served in a red wine sauce. I didn't, as it happened. But there was something nearly as delectable: a truly first-rate paella ($10.75) -- a great, glistening, saffron-colored mound of moist rice teeming with mussels and chicken, red peppers and peas the color of young grass. They tried to elude, those peas. But I was thorough. Not one of them escaped.
Another entree I'd recommend is the zarzuela de mariscos ($13.95). A zarzuela is a Spanish operetta, and is called such because the early zarzuelas were performed in the Zarzuela Palace, not far from Madrid. The musical zarzuela is a kind of hodgepodge, as is the zarzuela de mariscos. A seafood casserole native to Catalonia, it has crab claws, mussels, squid, shrimp and codfish and came to the table piping hot, in a bright red sauce so rich and fragrant, just smelling it made me weak with happiness. I can't imagine ever tiring of zarzuela de mariscos. Were I to eat it every Monday night for the rest of my life, I would die a happy and contented man.
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Just as good were the lamb shanks. There's no fiddle-faddle at Tio Pepe. The flavors are robust and dramatic and, like those flamenco singers, demand that you pay them heed.
And treat yourself to some sangria ($5.75). But be careful. Though it looks innocuous and tastes innocuous, in point of fact, it's neither. After three glasses of the stuff, my vision began to blur.
To see Tio Pepe is to understand that no fortune has been lavished on it. The decorations are rudimentary: a wineskin, a picture of a cabbage and skeins and skeins of garlic. The place, in fact, is modest to a fault. But for all that, I'm glad to have made its acquaintance. I had two excellent meals here -- and I'll long remember both of them.
Tio Pepe, 5213 Cedar, 667-4409.