Chips and salsa are a significant part of any Texan’s diet, and especially a Texan who was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley. I spent those critical developmental years of my life eating quality Mexican food, which has shaped my views and opinions on what Tex-Mex should taste like.
In the past 33 years, I have eaten a lot of chips. And I have eaten a lot of salsa. I’ve even been known to drink salsa when I ran out of chips. Don’t judge. If you’ve never had a drink of salsa, then, obviously, you’ve never had salsa that was good enough to drink. But there is only one chip-and-salsa combo that makes it to the top of my list…
The year 1994 was a good year, despite the fact that I turned 11 years old and entered that “awkward stage” that I haven’t quite grown out of yet, and despite the whole Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan thing, and despite the MLB strike. But other than that, 1994 was a good year. The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl. The Houston Rockets were the NBA champions. And Pepe’s Restaurant opened in Harlingen. Clearly, it was a good year for Texas.
For nearly 23 years, Pepe’s has greeted its customers with homemade chips and fresh salsa. The chips are made daily at the restaurant. When that basket is placed on the table in front of you, the chips are warm, with a little bit of oil filling the pockets or crevices in them (by the way, this is NOT a health food blog), which is perfect because when you sprinkle salt on the chips, it sticks and doesn’t roll off to the bottom of the basket. The salsa is not too hot, but not too mild either. There’s plenty of flavor, but you can consume bowl after bowl without damaging your taste buds. I experience serious withdrawals if I go too long without a fix of this salsa. When visiting the Valley, I tell my parents hello, hug my grandmother, and head straight to Pepe’s. And every time my parents visit me, they stop by Pepe’s first to pick up a couple of pints of salsa and a couple of bags of chips for me.
Although it’s perfectly acceptable to make a meal out of chips and salsa, if you are able to visit Pepe’s, don’t stop eating even if you fill up on chips and salsa…go ahead and indulge and order a botana. (This is not the time to adhere to the “all things in moderation” mantra.) You’ll get a plate of perfectly cooked rice, a bowl of beans a la charra, and a mound of fajitas (beef, chicken, or both) piled on top of a bed of nachos, with heaps of guacamole on the side. My favorite way to eat the fajitas is to wrap them up in a corn tortilla with lime juice and guacamole. The nachos are simple, but addictive. The best nachos are found under the guacamole and in the very center of the platter, where all the juice from the fajitas has converged on the tops of the cheesiest chips.
The atmosphere and service are as great as the food. Pepe’s is a small restaurant with brightly painted walls, cactus and piñata curtains, and posters of local high school athletes tacked up in the entryway. The wait staff is attentive. Not only will they make sure your glass is always full and that you never run out of chips or salsa, but once you become a regular, they’ll make sure to learn what you like to drink, how many bowls of limes you want, whether you prefer corn tortillas or flour, your kids’ names and eating preferences, etc. Our family has had the same server for years. Before I have my feet under the table, Jesse has a tall glass of water with lime, a bowl of limes, a basket of chips, and a bowl of salsa in front of me. And he keeps a straight face when my children, who are being raised in East Texas, ask him, again, “What do you call those circle things like bread that we like to eat a lot?” (They mean tortillas.)
Pepe’s doesn’t have a website, because the quality of their food isn’t the only thing they’ve kept the same since 1994, but it would be best if you visited in person anyway—117 S. 77 Sunshine Strip, Harlingen, Texas. Tell Jesse I said hi, and if you go on a Friday night, tell my mom and dad hello, too. My dad looks like George Lopez (don’t tell him I said that) and my mom will be the woman posting a picture of her chips and salsa on Facebook to make me jealous.