Pepe's Place

Pepe Dominguez
  • Pepe Dominguez

This restaurant is closed.

“Gang warily,” my Scottish grandpa said. “Go carefully, ’specially when it comes to birthday surprises. Women hate them.”

I was thinking of that the other day, because here I was, deep in Carla territory. Coronado. I wanted to check out this place for her boithday, the day before New Year’s.

I was thinking Mexican Village. Mention it to Carla and her eyes go funny. As a kid, she’d gone there for big celebrations, like birthdays, first dates, or when her Navy stepdaddy returned from a West-Pac. So many Navy flyboys practically lived there at the “Village” between tours, they called it “Mex-Pac.”

That’s why I came over here. Trouble is, I heard the place had closed its doors after being in business for, like, 60 years. Guess it’s found a new operator, because now a big sign says “OPEN.”

’Course I have to pop in. And wow, it’s bright and beautiful inside. Big tile floor with a massive fountain in the middle, bars and lounge on the right, and straight ahead a kind of dining hall, with bright yellow faux-washed flowerpot-studded walls, lit by a skylight that lets the sun flood in.

“Welcome!” says this gent coming toward me all the way from the back, the kitchens, probably. “Lunch?”

Uh, hadn’t meant to, and haven’t even checked for prices, but what the heck. He leads me down to a table under a big curly metal Spanish chandelier, near some potted ferns. I put my antennas out for ghosts, spirits of the crazy days gone by — Korean War, Vietnam War, first Gulf War — when this island was swollen with military. I try to imagine the cacophony. Kinda like Top Gun, I’m guessing.

Except, right now, the music ain’t “Danger Zone,” it’s, well, I’d swear it’s either Julio Iglesias or…d’ah, Pedro…the great Mexican icon?

“Infante, Pedro Infante,” says the guy, Pepe. “That’s Amorcito Corazón [Little Love of the Heart] he’s singing.” Turns out this is Pepe’s place now.

A pretty gal comes up. Marisol. One of Pepe’s eight daughters — wow. “And four sons,” says Pepe. Twelve kids? “I have been blessed,” he says. Marisol and Alicia are working out front, and their brothers Luis and Ricardo are cooking. Nearly all the recipes come from their grandmother Elisa and uncle Roberto in Jalisco.

I ask for a coffee ($1.99, endless refills). Marisol brings me a plate of chips and mild salsa and a big shiny menu. I flash through it. Lord. The prices all look like $11, $15, $17 buckaroos. Then I see the back page. Mexican Village “signature” burritos, $8.50, stuffed with everything from “tripitas” to carnitas con papas (pork with potato) to shrimp with Veracruzano sauce. Okay, the shrimp’s a buck more. Burgers go for $7.50, and yes! You can get three soft tacos for $6.95. Now we’re talking. Carnitas, carne asada, tripas (tripe), shrimp, or fish. Deal.

Except, when it comes to it, I go pay out twice as much just so I can have a crisp shell. I order a combo beef taco and chicken taco plate with rice and beans ($10.95).

They come on a big oval platter, standard-looking crisp tacos, but gushing with grated lettuce and cheese and big tomato wedges. I ask for some stronger salsa. Marisol brings out a little witch’s brew of thick, lethal sauce. It certainly helps. I polish off the tacos lickety-split. The chicken one’s fine, but the beef’s got all the flavor, savory, a little sweet, refreshingly crisp lettuce, and a nice crunchy taco shell, though I’m kinda wishing I’d gone for, say, the carnitas con papas burrito.

I tell Pepe about the birthday idea. “I’m not made of money,” I say. “But this’d mean a lot to her.”

“It’s the gesture that’s important,” he says. “When I was courting my wife, I’d turn up once a month outside her home in Tijuana with ten mariachis and serenade her, say with the Luis Miguel song, ‘Entrega Total’ — ‘Total Surrender.’ You have to surprise them.”

Huh. That’s not what Grandpa said.

“Would you like me to sing you a song?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” I say.

Pepe goes and gets a microphone, plugs it into a tape box, and starts singing, with full recorded orchestral backing. “Por vivir en quinto patio…” It’s about a poor boy serenading from the street up to a rich girl on her swank fifth-floor balcony. “El dinero no es la vida, es tan sólo vanidad.” “Money is not life, it’s only vanity.”

All right! Man after my own heart. And a beautiful, powerful voice, too. This is just what this place needs. For the past 70 years it’s had gringos playing at Mexican — and doing it well — but now the island has the real thing.

“Really, I am the wealthiest man in the world,” says Pepe. “Not money. I am 65, I have my life, my 12 children, my music, and this wonderful place.”

And then he excuses himself to go set up for a party tonight.

Me, I go to the front desk to pay Alicia.

“Wow,” I say. “Your dad. Serenading your mom. He’s something else. How would you like someone to serenade you with ten mariachis below your window?”

“I’d be weirded out,” Alicia says.

Sigh. Somehow, I feel Carla would love to be weirded out like that. If only I had the dinero to be that weird.

The Place: Mexican Village, 126 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-435-3111

Type of Food: Mexican

Prices: Mexican Village “signature” burritos, $8.50 (fillings, e.g. tripitas [tripe], carnitas con papas [pork with potato], chorizo and eggs); shrimp burrito, $9.50; quesadilla, $6.95, with meat, $9.95; cheeseburgers, fries, $7.50; three soft tacos, $6.95, fillings include carnitas, carne asada, tripas (tripe), shrimp, fish; main dishes more expensive: beef taco and chicken taco with rice and beans, $10.95; carne asada beef with rice, beans, tortillas, $15.95; carnitas plate with cactus, $15.95; combination plates, $9.95–$11.95; ceviche tostada, $4.95

Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Sunday–Thursday; till 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday

Bus: 904, 901

Nearest Bus Stop: Second and Orange (904); Third and Orange (901)

Harbor Ferry: First and B (five-minute walk)

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