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Tio Pepe, Clearwater

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click to enlarge MAKIN' IT SNAPPY: Tio Pepe owner Jesus Exposito brandishes - a platter of stone crab claws.<i - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
MAKIN' IT SNAPPY: Tio Pepe owner Jesus Exposito brandishes a platter of stone crab claws.

It's easy to miss Tio Pepe Restaurante as you zip past on State Road 60 in Clearwater, headed for the beach or Tampa. Artfully wedged between car dealerships, chain restaurants and low-rise office buildings, it sits sideways on its lot, shadowed by foliage and tucked back away from view, its outlines hidden by the junky mess our roadways have become. Once you miss it, the junky mess becomes more than an annoying eyesore, as you then risk life and limb to turn around with several lanes of speeding traffic coming at you like the Carolina Speedway. But once you make that final turn into the parking lot, past the twinkling Christmas lights, into the protection of Tio Pepe's courtyard, behind its heavy carved front door, be prepared to relax. There's an Old World ambiance awaiting you inside.

Though it is 25 years old, Tio Pepe is still a whippersnapper by local Spanish restaurant standards (the Columbia, in Ybor City, is approaching its 100th anniversary). Still, the eatery has been around long enough to develop a following, and it's no mystery why people like it: Its Spanish and Cuban fare is among the Bay area's best. Its civilized European mood and low-key demeanor are distinctive.

The food quality and ambiance have been carefully crafted by owners Joseph Rodriguez and Jesus Exposito.

On holidays in particular, the restaurant fills up. Mother's Day is big because matriarchs whose families are of Spanish or Cuban descent like to take one day off each year from their steadfast post in the kitchen. And people who cook complex Spanish and Cuban-style dishes every day for their families know which restaurants can produce an approximation of traditional specialties.

The lobby is decorated with heavy Spanish furniture, and a wrought-iron railing curls upstairs to two private dining rooms. The cozy bar just off the lobby must be empty at times, but in a dozen or so visits there I've never seen it without the requisite knots of men, talking politics or telling jokes, their rich, deep laughter lending a priceless vitality.

The bar and lobby sit in the middle of several separate dining rooms, with seating for 284. As you pass the baking kitchen, you can see the loaves of black bread, on which you will feast momentarily, still perched on the cooling racks.

Another room we passed had a deep red curtain covering the doorway. We could glimpse a private party inside, a group of eight or 10 around a table, toasting in Spanish. That's the kind of place it is — reminiscent of home. People feel comfortable here.

Still, they dress up to dine. Women wear evening gowns or cocktail dresses. Men wear jackets and suits with ties. It's a good place to take a date you'd like to impress or a family member celebrating a birthday. It is the exact opposite of faddish: You won't see anyone wearing a baseball cap or a see-through gown. There's a tacit agreement among the restaurant's privileged clientele that tends to enforce a certain standard of good manners. I don't know what it's called now, but it used to be known as social pressure.

Whatever it is, you can relax because you know you're not going to have to put up with some slob belching at the next table. They say that etiquette is designed to make living easier, and I'm pretty sure that's true. Tio Pepe proves it.

We started with drinks and a basket of the restaurant's delectable handmade black bread, accompanied by cold, fresh butter. The wine list is extensive and varied, but I wanted a glass of sangria, the Spanish national beverage, made with Rioja wine. When it arrived, it was one of the best versions I've ever tasted — heavy, cold and fruity. My official martini tester rated his drink an "A" as well, though it practically knocked him off his chair. Maybe that's why the guys at the bar laugh so much.

We had trouble choosing from a dozen or so appetizers, but I finally settled upon chorizo riojana ($4.95). He ordered a simple shrimp cocktail ($6.95). Mine featured the spicy Spanish sausage chorizo, heavy with oil, sauteed with onions, garlic, pepper and red wine. It was disappointing because the delicate sausage had been overcooked. But the shrimp was cold and fresh, delicious in its simplicity.

The waiter arrived and dressed our salad at the table, but it was the inevitable Spanish restaurant standard: simple iceberg lettuce with a few vegetables thrown in for color, tossed in an oil and vinegar dressing. Almost every Spanish and Cuban restaurant in the Bay area serves exactly the same salad, as predictable as heat in summer.

To the entrees: Mine was the house special, pompano relleno ($19.75); the mild white fish was stuffed with crabmeat, lobster and shrimp, served with homemade Burgundy sauce. As the waiter set it before me, he said: "It looks awful, but it's really good." It did look pretty awful, patches of white fish peeking through muddy gravy, but just as he had predicted, it was terrific — moist fish lathered with a delightfully rich sauce. The gooey stuffing was loaded with crabmeat and shrimp.

My companion ordered Puntas de Solomillo Salteado ($15.95), tenderloin tips sauteed with mushrooms, green peppers, leeks, ham and chorizo. It was also excellent — hefty chunks of beef and perfect little squares of ham, heavy with sausage and served with yellow rice.

The rice was unexpectedly anemic. It was almost white, and gave off no scent of garlic at all. It also needed more saffron, the spice that provides the familiar deep yellow color and unusual flavor. A simple demerit, but puzzling to me because, of all dishes, I would have expected Tio Pepe to produce it perfectly.

By the end of the meal, we were groaning from overindulgence, and maybe that's why our super efficient waiter mistook us for people who don't order dessert. He underestimated our determination, or gluttony, or both, I guess. The dessert menu listed everything from simple flans to a 14-layer chocolate tart.

I wanted something different, so I ordered the Sea Shell ($6.45), dark Swiss chocolate molded by the chef into a sea shell shape, filled with Amaretto cream and set over strawberry Triple Sec sauce. It arrived with a spoon, which turned out to be inadequate for the task of hacking my way into the generously endowed chocolate shell. Probably an ice pick would have been perfect, but I made do with the sharp prongs of a fork, in the process spraying myself with Amaretto cream. But hey, one of the great joys of cooking and eating is making a huge mess.

It was worth it: The chocolate was thick and wonderful; the cream light and fluffy; the strawberry sauce clear and vibrant. I left happy, but my dry cleaner will wonder under what circumstances I managed to get Amaretto cream both on the shoulder pad of my jacket and the back of my skirt. I could truthfully explain: "I was working."

I can hear him thinking: "Sure you were."

Contact Sara Kennedy at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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