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Pepita Cantina, Mexican Cantina on Wilson Blvd. and N. Quincy Street in Ballston by MIC Concepts - Closed


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Is there a thread on Pepita?  Google didn't find it.  I had lunch there the other day.  I had the tongue and goat tacos, the tongue was very soft and had good flavor, but the goat was really a star, the flavor combination was great with a little more texture than the tongue.  We had chips and the salsa verde.  The salsa verde was one of the best I have ever had- it was thicker in texture than most and had a nice kick to it.  I also liked the music selection.  $24 total for 2 people- 4 fairly good size tacos, chips, salsa and non-alcoholic drinks.  Which isn't too bad.  I would like to try the veggie taco because I think overall Mike Isabella restaurants have some great veggie dishes.  

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I suppose you could say that Pepita Cantina is being graded on an auto-curve, because immediately before going there, I went to one of its "competitors," if you could call it that.

One important thing to remember about Pepita Cantina is that it is first-and-foremost a *bar*, not a restaurant - I counted 21 pages of their book-form menu with items on it, and only 3 of those pages were filled with food offerings. Structurally, it's a pillbox, yet has three television sets - for those who remember, it has a similar shape to the old Eleventh Street Lounge; for the younger set among us, it has a similar feel to El Chucho.

Both men working the bar were busy prepping, and it was tough to get their attention at first, but once my service began, it was top-notch. Like its competitor (which should not be named in the same essay), Pepita has a "Football" portion on their menu, with a small list of drink and bar-snack specials during football games - given that this was a Sunday, I took advantage of that: Both items here were purchased at these special, lower prices, and are normally several dollars more expensive.

My kindly bartender asked me for my drink order, and I asked for a Rickey ($7) without any sugar (which I guess is termed an "Original Rickey"). Although he exuded warmth and confidence, while he was making my drink, I wasn't at all certain he'd ever made a Rickey before, as he was looking down like he was reading something while making the drink - he then came back over and asked me if I'd like it with Bourbon or Gin. "Gin," I said. Off he went again.

And when he came back the second time, he had made me a splendid version of this wonderful drink, and I couldn't have been more pleased. Oh, curse the first bartender that decided to add sugar to a Rickey - it's perfect like it is, and there's no need to tamper with something that already works.

This was a fairly large cocktail, and halfway through, I needed some food, as I hadn't eaten all day (unless you want to consider my previous, erm, meal "eating"). I normally wouldn't order a Mexican Pizza ($7), but it, too, was on the Football menu, and I'm a sucker for refried beans - it's a personal, six-piece "pizza" made with a paper-thin "crust," that was basically a tortilla, served almost like a pie, stuffed and then topped. The backbone of this was the underutilized picadillo - which I could eat every day - along with refried beans, tomato, and queso. There were also some very welcome, unannounced toppings such as some type of bulbs, perhaps the bases of leek, and some slices of what seemed like thin, red jalapeí±o; the former adding texture, the latter adding a judicious bit of heat.

After what I'd just suffered through, Pepita Cantina came out looking like The French Laundry. It really is just a tiny little cantina, and it probably gets thumping-loud on the weekends, but the restrooms were squeaky clean, the drink selection is far-reaching, and my humble little Mexican Pizza was very good - someone here cares about things, and I think diners would be served well going during off-hours, going sooner rather than later, and capitalizing on the specials - this food might not win any awards, but it isn't designed to - it's tasty and if you go at the right times, it's gently priced.

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We went with my Mother on the eve of Thanksgiving.  Pretty late in the evening, no thumping music, but we haven't gone on a weekend night.  I had the nachos, which heads up nacho-threadists were very good!  Homemade chips, good ratio of toppings, good quality toppings.  I had the steak with beans, cheese, peppers, but would be interested in trying the chicken verde too.  Mom had tacos (goat and chicken) she liked them and MK had enchiladas he said were good.  Enough to be more than a meal for one person.  Please note though that this is a walkable place for us, it's not like a destination for us, it's nice to get some decent tacos within a short walk from the house.

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Yesterday I had every intent to meet a friend near Bethesda Rockville or somewhere in between for lunch, but she surprised me and offered to come all the way to Ballston.  We ended up at Pepita after intending to go to Yona because she is pregnant and didn't know how many options she had at Yona and felt like tacos over ramen once she got there (first time pregnant).  We got the express lunch which was a burrito with chips and salsa and a drink.  I got mine with chicken verde and smothered with ranchero and oaxaca cheese.  I am not a big burrito fan, but since we already wanted chips, I didn't want to go for nachos and I was trying to convince myself to get something new.  It turned out to be a pretty good burrito.  It wasn't as big as some and I liked that as it was more uniform and manageable to me.  Rice, beans were really nicely cooked.  The verde sauce used to be a bit spicier, but maybe just this batch was a bit milder, but in the burrito with ranchero it was a pretty tasty combination of flavor.  I noticed that in the salsa verde too, just not quite the kick it once had, which I like.  I thought the other salsa was really smokey yesterday too, so maybe just ratios were off or something.  Overall though it was a good burrito and we had a nice late lunch where we could sit and chat.

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So we met up with a fellow DRer during the major part of the storm at Pepita, and one quibble.  If on Twitter you are a restaurant and tweet that you are open during a storm, but your kitchen isn't open, you should say the bar is open.  He knew and texted me once we had left and we could have ventured on, but the very good drinks and conversation made us linger, but I distinctly remember the tweet saying they were open, not the bar was open.  

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We ate here this weekend and found it very average. They say they haven't had the salsa verde in a year or so, and I wasn't particularly interested in ordering the other salsas, so we ordered guacamole. It was unimpressive - creamy rather than chunky, didn't have that fresh-made taste, needed acid badly (lime, or maybe tomatillo), and could have used cilantro.  It was bland and dull enough that I could easily see buying something more interesting packaged at the grocery store. And it cost $12, for a much smaller serving than Oyamel or even Rosa Mexicano.

I had two tacos. The shrimp was pretty tasty, though not outstanding. The cauliflower had no flavor itself, though the sauce was nicely zingy. It didn't have the richer taste of roasted cauliflower - it might have been steamed. Definitely would not order again. My husband said his burrito was pretty good, but nothing particularly special.

Next time, we'll get about as good food at District Taco, for half the price.

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Yeah, I went back once for dinner, and I must to have forgotten to post.  I think the restaurant has declined considerably from when it first opened.  I think MI just overreached aggressively, and both Yona and Pepita suffered.  Who knows maybe people in Ballston weren't ready for Yona as it was, or Pepita with actual hot salsa verde, etc.

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21 hours ago, Genevieve said:

We ate here this weekend and found it very average.

Next time, we'll get about as good food at District Taco, for half the price.

4 hours ago, ktmoomau said:

I think the restaurant has declined considerably from when it first opened.  I think MI just overreached aggressively, and both Yona and Pepita suffered. 

Carpe Diem

-- M.I.

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