Some strip-mall asada proves that everyday meals can also be great ones

By Joe Donnelly

Don’t overthink the menu at Pepe’s — just order the asada taco platter Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Don’t overthink the menu at Pepe’s — just order the asada taco platter
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Is there anything a cane-sugar Mexican Coke won’t cure?

I had one with my meal at Pepe’s Tacos the other day — right out of the tall, sexy, sweaty bottle — and my precognitive osteoporosis disappeared immediately. A hangnail that was thinking about hanging thought the better of it, and the inevitable bad breath from the Pepe’s Supreme burrito and three-taco combo plate I was about to eat passed me by as if I’d put lamb’s blood on my esophagus. It seemed to have landed on the guy eating a burger combo with fries at the booth next to me.

Serves him right. You can get a cheeseburger anywhere, and while I’m sure Pepe’s does a damn good job of it, why come all the way to this stucco strip mall on the corner of Culver Boulevard and Centinela Avenue in this relatively untouched-since-1950, blue-collar neck of Culver-Monica to get a cheeseburger? Even if you live next door or across the street, why? After all, Howard’s Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers is but a mile or two away.

Regardless, with the Mexican Coke tickling my taste buds while shooting positive ions through my neural highway and also curing the leprosy I had 10 lifetimes ago in pre-Cromwell Donegal, and with Real Madrid squaring off against Villarreal for lunchtime entertainment, and with my silver 2012 Ford Focus SE Hatchback having just been detailed, one could afford to let such transgressions pass without comment.

The whole thing did get me thinking about Canada, though.

Did you know more than a million Canadian nationals live amongst us? Of course you didn’t. Why would you? Unless they’re comedians (Canada is weirdly responsible for a preponderance of good ones), what have Canadians, perfectly nice people mind you, done to make your life more interesting? And, for God’s sake, don’t say hockey.

Ah, but our brothers to the south, where would we be without them? Imagine how dull life would be without Carlos Fuentes, lowriders, la virgen de Guadalupe, Guillermo del Toro, the best nannies in the world and, of course, a damn good taco when you’re hungry and don’t have a king’s ransom to spend on lunch.

So, why are we sweating all this border business? Let the Canadians come down —whatever, who’ll know the difference? And, as for nosotros amigos del sur? Yo digo vienen aqui, pronto, por favor! Necesitamos ustedes mas que ustedes necesitan nostoros.

Forgive me if my Spanish is off. I haven’t studied since senior year in high school (and that was far too long ago to admit), but if these everyman tacos at Pepe’s are the shape of things to come, I fully intend to brush up.

As I mentioned, my lunch partner and I (right after Rinaldo put a penalty kick in the upper right corner to give Real Madrid a 1-0 lead) ordered the three-taco combo: chicken, al pastor and asada. There are more autentico offerings on the menu—birria, lengua, cabeza, buche, etc. — but me being a first-timer, we decided to play it straight. So straight, in fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say our Supreme burrito was chicken, too.

But, as far as Pepe’s goes, the old saying holds true: come for the asada, stay for the cabeza.

First, though, a few words about that Pepe’s Supreme burrito.

A more pedestrian choice at Pepe’s one could probably not make. Yet, make it we did. The burrito, after all, is the ploughman’s ploughman’s lunch, and the Pepe’s Supreme provides enough calories to till 40 acres without a mule. But beyond its utility to fuel the fieldwork, the Supreme achieves the best balance of cheese, avocado, sour cream and salsa to go with your choice of meat that I ever can recall coming across. And I’ve come across many as a result of my wife’s mission in life to find the very same balance achieved by Pepe’s. And here it was all the time, hiding in Culver-Monica. Let’s not tell her about the Pepe’s Supreme, though, for that quest for balance gives her such pleasure and purpose and I fear that if she sampled the Supreme, that aspect of her life would come to a close.

As for the tacos, first of all they were the right size and shape. If they were pancakes, they’d be the silver dollars — small enough to make you feel okay about ordering three; big enough that three is plenty. My friend and I split the taco order down the middle. By that I mean I got the asada and al pastor, and he got el pollo.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and wax poetic about the tacos. Tacos are an even more utilitarian staple than the burrito — they merit respect, not celebration, or else someone is trying too hard. And that’s the point. Pepe’s tacos are effortlessly delicious. They slide like a slider but stick like a tick to your taste buds and memories. Suffice to say, I’m still thinking about that taco asada and look forward to revisiting that lost strip mall in that lost stretch of Culver-Monica.

I can afford it, too. That massive burrito, the three tacos and two Mexican Cokes (my friend got one, too), cost us only about $18.

Here’s hoping only enough people find Pepe’s to keep the proprietors in good spirits and health, but not enough that the rest of us can’t find an available booth during lunch hour.

It’s worth mentioning that as I returned to my car a comely hobo — and I say hobo respectfully, as she and her friends appeared to be rail riders, not skid row zombies — remarked as to how she appreciated my style and how I deserved to be driving that “fancy car” I was about to get into.

Needless to say, I drove off in my 2012 Ford Focus SE Hatchback with a full heart and a full stomach.

Pepe’s Tacos | 4582 S. Centinela Ave., Del Rey | (310) 391-8667 |