Pepe Delgados Mexican Restaurante

Nestled in the center of Norman’s Campus Corner, Pepe Delgados tastes like you could be dining 1,500 miles away in owner Emilio Salinas’ home village of Punta Maldonado, Mexico.

“There’s an African-Mexican influence in our recipes, because my mother is African,” he said. “There was a shipwreck and her ancestors stayed right there in the jungles of Guerrero.”

Maintaining home culinary traditions has meant bucking the norm of what many here expect in a Mexican restaurant. None of Pepe’s dishes are buried under a half-pound of cheese, and endless baskets of chips with unnaturally yellow queso don’t arrive at your table.

“We use no animal fat, no preservatives and everything is made here fresh daily,” Salinas said. “Nothing comes from a can or jar.” Even meat arrives unprocessed. It’s marinated only in lime juice, salt and black pepper, then grilled. No cooking oil of any kind is added to the black beans or rice. Nothing here is served with even a hint of grease.

right Pepe Delgados’ grilled trout

Habanero, avocado and tomatillo varieties of salsa are made daily. Attention to detail and fundamentals has won the restaurant a loyal following that has only grown over its 20 years of operation. The food is not pretentious; it’s simply wonderful.

Pepe’s is not a white tablecloth dining room, but it’s not a hole-in-the wall, either. Vibrantly colored murals, Mexican music and comfortable booths make it a warm and attractive place. Specialty margaritas using mango or fresh orange juice are mixed at a long mahogany bar.

Pepe’s has the familiar tacos, burritos and enchiladas, but those in the know are more likely to order a daily special. Grilled trout ($10.25) was top of the board on a recent visit, served with a choice of Mexicana or diabla sauce, black beans and veggies. And speaking of vegetables, every dish on the menu has a vegetarian version. Enchiladas Oaxacas ($9) became so popular that it’s now available every day. A dark, luscious mole sauce redolent of subtle chocolate makes your choice of enchilada fillings irresistible.

Sopes ($9) are hand-formed,
thick masa tortillas the size of a personal pan pizza filled with meat
and topped with a chunky avocado sauce. They’re as close to Latino
home-cooking as any you’ll encounter in the metro.

“On
Saturdays, we do a Mexican barbecue that’s slow-cooked beef,” Salinas
said. “It’s roasted for five hours and is traditionally served at
weddings.”

Another
beef special done well is rajitas en salsa verde ($9.50). Lean strips of
top sirloin are sautéed with onions and poblano pepper strips. Roll
that mélange up in a tortilla and it’s a mighty fine meal.

Burrito loco ($8.75) is crazy huge.

It’s
big enough to feed two men and a boy, but I persevered and polished off
the whole thing. A large flour tortilla is loaded with succulent
grilled chicken, rice and beans. This burrito is a nod to American
tastes.

A signature flourish I like on most dishes here is the generous sprinkling of fresh cilantro and chopped red onion.

Two
amazingly good nonalcoholic beverages are made in-house. Agua de
Jamaica is brewed from dried hibiscus leaves and tastes somewhere
between cranberry and grape juices. Horchata is a milk-based ambrosia
flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.

“I like running this place because we have great customers,” Salinas said. “Lots of regulars, but because
of the university, people from all over the world come here.”

Oklahoma
Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive
aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or
service when appropriate.

Photo by Mark Hancock

Doug Hill

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