Once again, we find ourselves faced with the age-old question: is this a restaurant, or is this a bar? On the one hand, you could pull up a stool at Pepito’s for a longie of Reschs or a glass of natural Chilean red wine and leave it at that. On the other, that would mean missing out on the leche de tigre – and that would be foolish.
Your eyes will tell you it’s essentially a glorified shot glass of ceviche. Your mouth, however, will register that it is, in fact, so much more. Once you make your way past the toasted Peruvian corn kernels and lightly crumbed calamari on top, through the layers of explosively fresh prawns and firm-fleshed Hiramasa kingfish, you’re left with nothing but a nip of the marinade, which you’re advised to drink. If you’ve never fully realised the power of lime, ginger, garlic and chilli shot through with a marine tang, you most certainly will.
But back to the matter at hand. Pepito’s, it turns out, is neither restaurant nor bar, but a homage to what Peruvians call a ‘taberna’ – an unpretentious, often century-old, family-run neighbourhood haunt where people from all walks of life cross paths for a drink and a casual bite to eat. Owner José Alkon and his family migrated to Australia when he was eight years old, and this is his way of introducing a slice of everyday life in his native Lima to Illawarra Road (complete with pan flute Smokey Robinson covers that play in the bathroom).
Alkon is also a cinematographer by day, which goes a long way in explaining the look and feel of the place. The raw timber door and gauzy white curtains strewn across the glass frontage set a nostalgic, been-here-forever tone that echoes all over the high-ceilinged room, from the globe pendant lights and framed vintage photos of Peruvian musicians to the comic-art gig posters slapped across the back wall. The original tilework from the venue’s former life as Phước Hải Seafood remains, and the electric blue stackable chairs were salvaged from a Queensland bowling club. It’s both glossy and grungy all at once.
Save for the lone main course of confit duck and coriander-stained rice, you can count the number of dishes on offer with your fingers, and eat most of them with your hands; they are what the menu heading calls reinterpretations of taberna classics, and you’ll need to order in abundance to make a meal of it. So naturally, there is papa a la huancaina, the staple of boiled potato slices coated in creamy, pastel-yellow huancaina sauce flavoured with soft cheese and fruity aji amarillo chilli. Here, the spuds arrive roughly quartered, hand-crushed, deep-fried and crowned by an oniony salsa criolla, with a light and frothy take on the sauce to the side. Make a mess. Enjoy.
Causa, the traditional terrine-like starter of layered potato mash stuffed with chicken or tuna, gets a similarly refined reimagining, rebuilt from the ground up using butter-smooth potato purée as a base for a hillock of smashed avocado and roughly chopped prawns. Swirls of lilac-tinged aioli add an unexpected splash of colour and brine thanks to the addition of kalamata olives. Street-food signatures, meanwhile, like the charcoal-grilled skewers of sliced ox heart known as anticuchos and a sandwich of crunchy pork belly and sweet potato crisps on a customised crusty roll from a nearby Vietnamese bakery, are more faithful to their origins, and no less well executed.
There are just as many piscos behind the bar as there are menu items – a not so subtle hint that you should probably order some. A Pisco Sour is the obvious choice, and a smart way to tame the searing acidity and gnawing chilli heat that ignites much of what comes out of the kitchen. Like Pepito’s itself, it goes down real easy and leaves you eager for another round.