It's just ed from Yuma again - this time writing a real long post about probably the best restaurant in town. Just in case you might someday be stuck in Yuma at mealtime, this is one place to remember.
Los Manjares de Pepe is widely recognized among the culinary cognoscenti of Yuma (well, at least among my friends and me) as the best Mexican restaurant in town - and that's saying something considering how many good Mexican restaurants our town boasts of. It doesn't get this acclaim because of its wonderful signage:
Or because of a beautiful building:
No, people love Pepe's for several reasons, all of them connected with the great food served. First, Monday through Friday, the restaurant features incredible specials, all at $4.99. On Mondays, you can get a caldo de albondigas. Like all meals here, the soup comes with good chips and spicy (if somewhat thin) salsa. You also get rice, beans, and your choice of tortillas. This great bowl of soup contains a nice rich stock, filled with 4 or 5 large and flavorful meatballs and an assortment of vegetables - celery, onion, carrot, and potato. Like the other specials, this a great deal.
On Wednesday, the special is peurco en salsa chipotle. This dish may be the tastiest thing I have ever eaten in Yuma, anywhere. Chipotle is not a common flavor used in most of Yuma's Mexican restaurants, but Pepe achieves something fantastic in this dish. The large chunks of rich and slightly fatty pork are bathed in a intensely smoky and moderately picante sauce. The balance of flavors achieved is excellent. The chipotle flavor is strong and rich enough to please the palate without drowning out the meaty flavors of the pork chunks.
Friday's special is truly special as well. I have always liked pozole since I first had a taste of this wonderful concoction of pork, hominy, and chile flavors years ago. The version at Los Manjares is, nonetheless, far and away the best I have ever eaten: Pozole broth with its meaty richness and deep red chile flavors is basically a great taste. Plus, Pepe doesn't short change customers in any way with this dish. This stock is as powerfully rich and as densely flavored as it looks. The bowl is full of hominy kernals and huge chunks of pork. In addition to the chips, salsa, beans, rice and tortillas, the customer also gets a selection of add-ons (the picture is of the extras for two). Each bowl is served with chopped onions, lime wedges, chopped cabbage, and a generous helping of cilantro. These can be dumped into the soup to add flavors and crunchy textures. Other people add these extras onto the tacos or burritos made with the pork and tortillas. Either way, they provide a nice addition and add to the taste and mouthfeel of the dish.
For those of you who are sure that your cholesterol has gone up twenty points just looking at the last set of pictures, I need to add that another reason why I think that Los Manjares is so outstanding is its chicken. We all have experienced lousy Mexican restaurant chicken. Take a chicken, boil it until tasteless, shred it, and then dump these wet flavorless shards of fowl into a flour or corn tortilla. But there is no boiled chicken at Pepe's. For example, take a look at an order of Pollo Deshuesado (boneless chicken)($7.99):
Each of these chunks of chicken is a delight to the mouth - tender, well-spiced, and full of chicken flavor. But Pepe uses his flavorful grilled chicken in his whole range of chicken dishes. I recently ordered the chicken enchiladas (senior size with 2 enchiladas, $4.99) and was served this wonderfully flavoful plate:
As much as I love posting at Kirk's wonderful blog because I can show all of you folks pictures of these wonderful things I have eaten, this picture does not do justice to this savory and succulent meal. The enchilada sauce, although it looks like most other enchilada sauces, has double the intensity of deep red chile flavor. And inside each of these rolled cylinders of tasty corn tortilla hides spicy and tasty morsels of Pepe's flavorful grilled chicken.
A picture does begin to convey the quality of the world's greatest chicken taco salad (no shell, $5.50):
It is hard for me to write about this salad without sprinkling superlatives over my sentences the way some of us sprinkle black pepper on scrambled eggs. On top of a smear of creamy frijoles, a mound of iceberg is surrounded by shredded pollo asado and topped with diced tomato, dollops of crema, rich fresh guacamole, shredded queso, pickled red onion slices, and chopped cilantro. Is it by chance that the colors across the top reflect the colors of la bandera - the flag of Mexico? Anyway, as beautiful as this looks, the looks don't come close to the flavors. Each shred of chicken is full of spice and is chewy tasty. The neutral background of crunchy lettuce brings together each biteful of salad. Overall, my mouth is full of multiple contrasts of temperatures, textures, and tastes (particularly after I drizzle salsa over the whole thing).
One of my favorite meals at Los Manjares - and years ago at El Zarape when Pepe cooked there - is the pollo al carbon, bone-in, well marinated chicken grilled outside over charcoal. Sometimes, after smelling the aromas of the chicken cooking outside, it is impossible not to order it for lunch (with beans & rice - 2 pieces $4.99, 4 pieces $6.99), so I have probably eaten this meal 20 times at least. I knew I had to have a photo for this post, so on a recent dinner visit, I order the 4 piece dinner:
Sad to say, this was the sorriest version of the pollo al carbon I'd ever eaten. First, the 4 pieces were 2 legs and 2 thighs. And the pieces look bigger in the pic than they were in real life. Second, the chicken had either been overcooked on the grill or had been sitting around under heat for too long so that the crunchy exterior almost extended to the bone. In any case, this was a disappointing meal. Still, though, the chicken had an excellent flavor, and the overly crunchy meat was OK in tacos. I just missed the usual moist and chickeny interior that I have come to expect from this dish. It also reminded me that sometimes even the best places don't always get everything right.
In addition to the daily specials and the (usually) great chicken dishes, Los Manjares also serves a wide range of wonderfully prepared Mexican restaurant standards. Since I had decided to do this post, I have been trying a few dishes that I could not remember eating before at Pepe's. So recently, I ordered a carnitas torta ($3.99):
I was astounded by the size of the sandwich; it filled up an entire plate. I know now that I had never ordered this dish before because it was a truly memorable torta, and not just because it was so large. The bottom layer of filling was a smooth beany smear of frijoles. On top of that was a layer of porky and crunchy carnitas. The carnitas was covered with chopped lettuce. The upper half of the bolillo was spread with Pepe's flavorful fresh guacamole, chopped cilantro, and pico de gallo, that flavorful fresh salsa of diced tomato, onion, and jalapeno. I never for a moment considered trying to pick this sandwich up with my hands and eating it. Doing that would have spilled goodies all over my shirt, and goodies this good need to be in my mouth, not on my wardrobe. So I attacked the torta with knife and fork and began devouring. Nonetheless, as good as it tasted, I could not completely finish it. Wow!
Los Manjares also prepares a number of dishes in a rich and tomatoey ranchero sauce:
This is a plate of Camerones Rancheros ($10.99), one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. The shrimp were tender and tasty, their mild flavors enhanced by the subtle ranchero sauce. Equally good is the Steak Ranchero and the Lengua, which is also served in this sauce. Unlike the deep red chile or chipotle flavors of some sauces, the ranchero with its tomato and bell pepper accent stays in the background and compliments the flavors of the shrimp or meat.
I want to end this long post by looking at one last dish done very well by Pepe, Al Pastor:
Believe it or not, this gigantic order of tender dry rubbed pork slices sells for $7.50. No, that is not a misprint. There is so much food here (and don't forget the chips, salsa, and tortillas) that I only order this if I am really hungry, and I still often bring enough pork home for a midnight snack. I doubt if there is a vertical spit in Pepe's kitchen, but this dish does not suffer from that in every way. The spices rubbed onto the meat before cooking add flavor to the meat. What's more, the pieces of pork are often tastily charred:
As this picture also illustrates, my favorite way to eat the Al Pastor is folded into a taco with the pico de gallo (and sometimes the pickled onions) from the plate added to the taco. Moments after this photo was snapped, I ladled a couple of teaspoons of salsa on this homemade taco and chowed down. Chewy, spicy, meaty, tender, crunchy and corny all at once. Yum!
I do have one fear about writing this post for Kirk. I can imagine some big city restaurateur reading this blog and suddenly deciding that he could make a fortune selling Mexican food this good in New York City. Then virtually overnight, Pepe would be pulling down six figures, living in a Manhatten condo, and charging willing diners, who had lined up outside the restaurant 2 hours before it opened, $50 for a plate of Al Pastor. If that should happen, New York, as well as Pepe and the restaurateur, would be the richer, but poor old Yuma would be left with a huge culinary hole. So if you are a New York restaurant owner, just let me say, "Nah, it'd never work."