By Liesel Schmidt
There’s no language barrier when it comes to great food, and for nearly 20 years, Pepito’s Mexican Restaurant has been serving precisely that, creating plates of cuisine so authentically Mexican that they might easily be found in most any home south of the border. Boldly breaking onto the Destin scene in 2000, Pepito’s dared to offer a menu that stood out amongst the many seafood restaurants laying claim to the area, though they certainly make good use of the local catch. For the skilled cooks at this homey Mexican restaurant, it becomes a canvas for a variety of their dishes, its natural flavor enhanced with spices and fresh ingredients that transport the taste buds from the shores of the Emerald Coast to the beaches of Mexico.
It’s this ability to bring the border to the beach that has made Pepito’s such a success, their dedication to using only the freshest ingredients and make everything from scratch setting them apart from their competitors. Salsas and guacamole is freshly made each day along with tamales that are handmade using traditional methods. They don’t merely assemble food—they create it, and the care they take in each dish is apparent in every bite. “Nothing we use here comes from a can or a box—we make and serve everything fresh to order because you can taste the difference,” says owner Eliseo Gutierrez, whose vision for the restaurant from the very beginning has always been to offer his guests the kind of food he was born and raised loving in an atmosphere that felt as welcoming as going to a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal.
And at Gutierrez’s “home,” frozen, pre-made food just won’t cut it. “There’s quality in what we’re doing here, so we take pride in the dishes we serve,” he says. From the refried beans they make each day to the freshly fried tortilla chips they bring out by the bowlful, Pepito’s has become a local favorite for classic Mexican cuisine, so successful in creating a following that they’ve opened three additional locations throughout the Emerald Coast, each staffed with cooks who are personally trained by Gutierrez to ensure that the recipes he so loves are just as authentic as if he was making them himself.
Offering such starters as nachos, fresh guacamole, and multiple variations of dips, Pepito’s spices it up from the get-go, showing off their mastery of both the chip and the dip as something truly worth notice. They could easily shy away from true authenticity in the face of an unfamiliar crowd; but instead, the menu at Pepito’s showcases them, serving dishes like menudo, pozole, and machaca that are truly inherent to Mexican cuisine. There are, of course, more familiar items on order—tacos and burritos, even burgers and a pasta dish that cater to the palates of those slightly less adventuresome. But even in these plates whose accent is far softened, the flavor fully translates into every bite.
Worthy of donning a sombrero to dance the Jarabe Tapatia, Pepito’s fajitas top the list of their most popular items, piling up a mixture of grilled meat, sautéed bell peppers, onions and tomatoes on a sizzling cast iron skillet so on fire with flavor you can literally hear it. Served with rice, beans, lettuce and sour cream along with scratch-made pico de gallo and guacamole, the fajitas come ready to party—and there are plenty of flour tortillas just waiting to be filled with the fun. Running close behind are the chimichangas and enchiladas; but the biggest “orale!” moment of all comes from the Big S Burrito, an aptly-named hunger buster stuffed with a pound of grilled chicken or steak and so loaded with rice, black beans, peppers, onions, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes that you might easily suspect the S stands for “super-sized.” More than likely, however, this filled-to-bursting marvel gets its name from the smothering of house made queso dip, salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream that makes the tortilla-wrapped wonder even more sensational…not to mention, massively shareworthy.
From first bite to last, the food at Pepito’s is a taste of Mexico at its most authentic, a welcome to the table that feels right at home. For Gutierrez, it’s a reminder of his roots, a comforting peek back at his homeland. Every plate served is a warm greeting to people who have come to love the food as much as he—and for Gutierrez and his staff at Pepito’s, that’s the whole enchilada.
The original Pepito’s Mexican Restaurant is located at 757 Harbor Bloulevard, Unit 1 Destin, Florida 32541. Open Sunday- Thursday 11:00 a.m.- 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. For more information, call (850) 650-7734. To learn more about the menu or the additional locations in Niceville, Ft. Walton Beach, and Miramar Beach, visit www.mypepitos.com.
Camarones al Chipotle
12 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 fresh tomato, diced
2 chile de arbol
1 garlic glove
1/2 tsp. chicken bouillon
1 tsp. chipotle sauce
5 saltine crackers
Salt and pepper
To prepare the salsa:
In a pan on high heat, cook diced tomatoes and chile de arbol. In a food processor, combine tomatoes and chile with crackers, chipotle, garlic, bullion, and 1 cup of water and pulse until liquefied, adding salt to taste preference.
To prepare the shrimp: In a skillet on high heat, sauté the shrimp in butter, season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with garnish of rice and beans or salad and tortillas