Mi Tomatina, the paella place in Winter Park’s Hannibal Square, is now Pepe’s Cantina. While Spanish may still be spoken here, the dialect is more Mexican than Catalan. And there’s a distinct Texas accent, as well.
Pepe’s Facebook page (the website is still “under construction) states that chef Jose Baranenko’s menu “puts a new twist on traditional Mexican cuisine.” Inasmuch as fajitas and nachos — and burgers, for that matter — are Mexican it’s only because they migrated from the country to the north.
But I’ll not quibble about authenticity. I had a pleasant visit to Pepe’s recently, and if the cantina vibe isn’t quite in sync with such neighbors as Chez Vincent, Mynt and Armando’s — Pepe’s Facebook page is promoting an event called Cinco de Drinko — it isn’t any more out of place than, say, Dexter’s down the block.
And to be honest, the place was fairly subdued when I visited, even though it was a Friday evening. The small dining room was all but empty, but the sidewalk tables out front were filled. My guest and I didn’t want to be inside (and alone) so one of the staffers asked us if we’d like to check out the tables by the bar in the back. If the bar was there when it was still Mi Tomatina, it had escaped my notice. We grabbed one of the high-top tables across from the bar and looked over the menu.
Starred in the upper left corner on the front of the long sheet menu is what our waiter described as a specialty of the house: Table-side Guacamole. Sounded like just the thing to supplement the salsa that had been plunked down with a basket of warm corn chips, so we started with that.
The affable young man who appeared almost immediately to begin chopping avocados allowed as to how his regular duties included busing tables, so he enjoyed the opportunity to make guac. The mix included two avocados, cubed, onions, tomatoes and ciliantro and a dash or two of jalapeno sauce. It was all a good, chopped consistency, much better than the pureed style, and only needed several dashes of salt to bring out the flavors. I must say, however, that at $9.50, it’s more than a few bucks overpriced.
For my entree I selected the chicken mole, which features a chicken thigh (though it looked more like a breast) covered with a nicely done chocolate brown, earthy flavored mole. It was served with warm flour tortillas and accompanied by a medley of vegetables — broccoli, peppers, zucchini, onions — and a scoop of rather bland Mexican rice.
The same veggies and rice were plated with my friend’s carnitas platter. The familiar pork chunks had been cooked with beer and orange juice but neither liquid was able to keep the meat from being too dry.
For some reason, we were gifted with a couple of desserts before our check was presented. I have to admit that the tres leches and flan were the best things I tasted all evening. The custard of the flan was smooth and creamy and the caramel topping had a nice not-too-sweet tang. The tres leches cake was so moist that it defied physics by maintaining its blocky shape. Delicious.
Servers were all welcoming and friendly if not exactly polished in their skills. It would be nice if the restaurant initiated a nonsmoking policy on its patio.
I’m guessing that the food margins for Pepe’s Cantina are more favorable for success than those of Mi Tomatina. Whatever, I hope this concept does well — it’s a good addition to Winter Park’s West Side.
Pepe’s Cantina is at 433 W. New England Ave., Winter Park. It is open for lunch and dinner, but unfortunately it does not list the days of the week that it is open on its Facebook page. The phone number is 321-972-4881.