One hot pepper

In case you missed it, here is my review of Peppers Mexicali Cafe that appeared in Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.

Whenever anyone asks me to name the best Mexican restaurant in town, invariably I’m asked, “What about Peppers?” This Pacific Grove institution consistently takes the crown among many locals for “best Mexican food.”

The curious thing is Peppers isn’t really a Mexican restaurant — not in the traditional sense, anyway.

Peppers Mexicali Cafe is a popular choice among locals for their spicy Southwestern fare.

But Peppers doesn’t try to label itself as one. The food is a fusion of Mexican and Southwestern cuisines — dishes rooted in traditional Mexican favorites, but executed with a nod to California and the Southwest.

Because it’s in between different cuisines, Peppers rarely pings my food radar when I’m looking for a spot to grab dinner.

It wasn’t until a friend and diehard Peppers aficionado visited from the East Coast that I really took notice.

The lunchtime combo is an easy way to try more of the Southwestern fusion fare at Peppers.

We went to Peppers for lunch, and I ordered one of the lunch specials — the two-item combination, with a chicken tamal and chicken taco ($12.95).

I was a little surprised by the plate that arrived before me: a hard-shelled taco sitting on a bed of greens. It had been years since I’d last had a hard-shelled taco. It seems to have fallen out of vogue and is a rarity on menus these days.

While the flavors were nice, the execution of both the taco and the tamal had some flaws.

Serving the taco on top of shredded lettuce made for a nice presentation, but it was completely impractical — the taco got very soggy and was impossible to eat with my hands.

Tamales are one of my favorite Mexican dishes, but they’re also one of the most finicky dishes to make. Case in point? The masa in mine was dry and crumbly. But the chicken was moist and tender with nice flavor.

I was a little disappointed by my lunch at Peppers, but I prepared to return, hoping that things might turn around at dinner service.

Peppers is the only bar in Pacific Grove, famous for their margaritas, like this blood orange margarita.

So when I was downtown waiting for a movie Monday night, I dropped in for dinner and drinks.

The chowder was quite tasty, and is a favorite among many Peppers regulars.

I started with a cup of Peppers’ famous sweet corn chowder (cup for $4.95, bowl for $5.95). This soup was quite tasty — very creamy with hint of light, sweet corn.

The chile verde was a huge portion!

For my entree, I chose the chile verde ($13.95). It had been described on the menu as “very spicy pork — order at your own risk.” I love a challenge, so I poured another margarita and stood ready to dig in.

The flavors of the chile verde were nice, but curiously lacking in heat.

The plate was piled high with a generous portion of flavorful pork, cooked in a green salsa verde. But when I took a bite, I was disappointed how mild it actually was. Even though it lacked enough heat for my tastes, the flavors of the salsa verde were quite nice.

The sopaipillas were a nice sweet treat to finish our meal.

We finished with an order of sopaipillas ($6.95) — the Southwestern equivalent of beignets. The lightly fried dough was served with a scoop of ice cream, a drizzle of honey and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

I think Peppers stumbles a little on the traditional favorites — for truly authentic Mexican dishes, stick to any number of the Peninsula’s little hole-in-the-wall taquerias.

But when it comes to fusion fare and a vibrant atmosphere, Peppers gives the diverse flavors of the Southwest the opportunity to shine.

Peppers Mexicali Cafe is at 170 Forest Ave. in Pacific Grove. 373-6892. www.peppersmexicalicafe.com.

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