With its abundance of taco trucks, authentic-fare restaurants and Tex-Mex standbys, Little Rock isn't hurting for Mexican dining, and we've always thought that it must be hard for a Mexican place to really stand out from the crowd. But for us, the first thing that helped separate Pepe's from the crowd was learning that the owner is Jose Rivera, whose now-closed Cancun restaurant in Arkadelphia was always a favorite stopover along trips down I-30. Curious to find out if some of our menu favorites from Cancun had made it over to the Pepe's menu, we recently stopped in at the bright yellow building on 12th street for a meal that was, with only one notable exception, very enjoyable.
The parking lot was crowded when we pulled up (which we always take as a good sign), and despite there being only one person working the dining room, we were seated quickly. We started our meal with the Queso Flameado ($5.95), a cheese dish that was offered with beef, chicken, vegetables or chorizo. Always a fan of the salty, oily sausage, we went for the chorizo and were treated to a huge bowl of warm melted cheese topped with a generous portion of subtly spiced chorizo and a bowl of very fresh pico de gallo. The appetizer also came with three flour tortillas — which wasn't nearly enough to take on all that cheese. Lucky for us, our server kept the warm tortilla chips coming and so we were able to make do.
In addition to the queso, we also started our meal with an order of three pork tamales from the a la carte menu ($5.55), and it was here that our meal hit its most major snag. When the plate came to us, we weren't even sure if we had tamales, since everything was buried under a glop-y red sauce that was far too sweet. The tamales themselves were loaded with tender pork, but the flavor of the corn shells tasted sour and old, and the meat was bland and flavorless. All told, a mushy plate of flavors that couldn't have been worse.
The arrival of our main entrees made us forget all about the tamales soon enough, though, especially the chicken chimichanga ($7.55), a dish for which we have a decided weakness. Pepe's version of the Tex-Mex classic came loaded with juicy marinated chicken, tomatoes and onions and was as flavorful as the tamales were bland. The deep-fried shell was crisp and covered with just enough white cheese sauce to add flavor without overpowering the dish. The Mexican rice served to the side was forgettable, but the refried beans were rich and had the luscious, creamy texture that so many restaurants can't seem to coax from their beans.
Equally satisfying were the carne asada tacos ($7.95), three corn tortillas filled with well-seasoned beef flavored nicely by the grill and served with a bowl of perfectly sauteed onions, more of those excellent beans and salsa that is some of the hottest we've ever tried. An odd combination of salsa verde and tomato salsa, it added a nice kick of heat and complexity to the steak. The onions were a tasty addition to the meat as well, although we found ourselves wishing for something like guacamole or sour cream to balance and contrast with all the spice.
Our mouths still burning, we found relief in a dish of Pepe's Vanilla Flan ($3.95), which soothed us with its cold, creamy texture and smooth vanilla flavor. The thin, sweet caramelized sugar topping added just the right amount of deep flavor to the light egg custard, and our biggest regret was that we had only ordered one dish to share. The flan was one of the best versions of the dish we'd ever tasted, and we ate it slowly in order to savor every bite.
5900 W. 12th Street
Still to try: a Cheese Cake Chimichanga ($4.95) and the catfish tacos plate ($8.85).
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.