Earlier this week, I wrote about our trip down the coast to the Monterey County Fair. It was a fantastic day, filled with all the fun and food you’d expect at a county fair. If you read that story, you know it was
a long haul to get there from Sacramento on Labor Day weekend. We were starving when we arrived, but you might recall, the fine, smoky aroma of Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ called to us and we soon had our fill of an amazing BBQ lunch, followed by a delicious dessert at Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls.
The day was far from over after our dessert, and we knew we were in for a very long drive back up to Sacramento.
So, before leaving the fair we decided to make one last stop for dinner at Pepe’s Mariscos (literally meaning Pepe’s Seafood). Owners Lola Ramirez & Jose Quintero take particular pride in their menu’s diversity and unique Mexican seafood offering, including ceviche tostadas, shrimp cocktails and their most popular item, fish tacos. They offer the traditional fare, including traditional and authentic carne asada and grilled chicken dishes, as well as burritos, quesadillas and their newest items, tortas and nachos.
For the past decade, Pepe’s Mariscos has served its authentic Mexican dishes at 22 county fairs in California and Arizona, and operates as an authentic mobile taqueria. And, when Lola and Jose say “authentic”, the really mean, “authentic”.
A large crowd huddled in front of this stand when we approached. I suddenly felt hungry, just looking at the hungry people standing in line.
The stand itself resembles any real Mexican taqueria, and if you’ve ever lived in San Francisco or Los Angeles, you know exactly what I’m talking about. These are the places – those “hole in the wall joints” – that are known for overflowing your plate with the most amazing Mexican food, prepared the way it is back home. Ramirez and Quintero say, “Our menu is very diverse and unique.
We offer something that no one else does, Mariscos!” but, believe it or not, we opted for beef and chicken. While Pepe’s Mariscos is really all about seafood, neither one of us were in the mood for it that day, though that shrimp cocktail looked incredible.
The staff at Pepe’s Mariscos was incredibly friendly. I don’t think I ever saw any of them NOT smiling. Even the guys inside at the grills seemed to enjoy their work. As the crowd around the stand grew larger, they took it all in stride, just like they do in a neighborhood taqueria.
At this point, we were getting a good feeling about this place; this one we may want to keep on our radar. It took me a couple of minutes deciding what to order – yes, I was “that guy in line who didn’t decide before he stepped up to the counter” – it was a difficult choice, debating seafood, beef or chicken.
I ordered a chicken torta and Andrew had a beef quesadilla. Torta is actually a Spanish word that can have different meanings, depending on region. It’s used to describe various breads as well as pastries, but the Mexican torta is a type of sandwich served on a flat roll. You can find them anywhere these days, including convenience stores and food carts on the sidewalk, but the best torta sandwiches come from authentic taquerias.
It took a little longer than expected to receive our order, and as impatient as I am when I’m hungry, I was getting a little discouraged. The sight and aroma of this Mexican food was making me hungrier, and I noticed that the plates were all overflowing with that ethnic goodness – just like at my regular favorite spots.
Then I heard my mother’s voice in my head, “good things come to those who wait…” I know, mom. I must be patient, but I began to wonder if I should have had the seafood after all. It seemed like every plate that passed before me was one seafood dish after the other, and with every breath, I could almost taste the aroma.
Then, I heard the magic number, “42!” I looked at my receipt to double check, as if checking my lotto numbers, and felt that jolt of excitement like winning a $20 scratcher. I almost felt like I had won some kind of prize and stopped myself from jumping up and down, as if I were on stage on The Price is Right. And as luck would have it, I was standing at the counter, so no need for dramatic, arm-waving sprints down the aisle. Instead, I smiled and said, “thank you”, then casually walked to a nearby picnic table, where we’d no less devour these plates.
The first thing we noticed was the size of these plates. Andrew’s quesadilla must have weighed nearly two pounds, alone. You probably know that a quesadilla is a flour or corn tortilla stuffed with a variety of ingredients, varying from plain cheese to a mixture of cheese, meats, vegetables, and herbs. It’s folded into a half-moon, then baked, grilled or fried. Like tortas, quesadillas can differ between regions. In El Salvador, quesadillas are more like a cake and they’re baked in cake molds. Mexican quesadillas are usually sliced into wedges and served with sour cream and guacamole on the side.
Andrew had a carne asada quesadilla – or, grilled meat quesadilla. Carne asada is thin beef steak, usually marinated with salt and spice rubs, then grilled. It’s used in tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, among other dishes. The meat was seasoned perfectly, without a salty taste and was juicy and tender. Pepe’s Mariscos is almost too generous in portion size – the quesadilla was absolutely packed with beef, cheese, tomato, onion, cilantro and sour cream, and very delicious. We’re guessing the marinade is probably secret, but it was the perfect combination of spices that made us want bite after bite.
Just like Andrew’s massive quesadilla, my torta filled the plate. Not at all what I expected, this sandwich was probably the largest torta I’ve ever seen. I took a photo with the top off to show off what this beast is really packing. Large, marinated and grilled chuncks of juicy chicken, avocado, feta cheese, tomatoes, beans and lettuce between a fresh, home made torta turned out to be far from a disappointment. Suddenly, all my doubt about seafood was long forgotten. And again, the seasonings on the chicken just made my mouth want to come back for more. The chicken dissolved in my mouth, and mixed with avocado and beans, creating a fiesta to my taste buds. This sandwich just explodes with flavor.
Lola and Jose said, “We have been doing fairs for over ten years. It is our belief that it is important to keep our clients happy and in the long run what keeps people coming to fair in the years to come,” and they can add us to their list of happy customers. One of their greatest rewards is being asked where one can find their food again. Their answer, “only at the fair.” But one thing’s certain, we’ll be following Pepe’s Mariscos on Facebook, and plan to revisit one of their locations for some of their famous seafood dishes very soon.
If you’d like to try Pepe’s Mariscos, you’ll find them at the LA County Fair through October 2, 2011.