Some entrees at Carlos & Pepe’s are adorned with toothpick flags. A seafood fajitas platter that didn’t have any sizzle came with a Mexican flag. A skirt steak from the “gringo” portion of the menu came with an American flag. By the end of a recent meal, I was ready to wave a white flag.
Not so much in defeat, because there were some decent flavors and bites, but more in surrender. A recent change in ownership has not brought reinvention or reinvigoration to the restaurant. I suppose I can get on my critic’s soapbox and lament a Fort Lauderdale restaurant stuck in time with Americanized Mexican food where nuance often gets lost amid an avalanche of melted cheese and refried beans and one would have an easier time drowning in margaritas than finding a mole sauce. Perhaps it is better to simply accept that some places become beloved institutions with loyal followings even though there are more satisfying Mexican restaurants with more reasonable prices in any number of South Florida strip malls.
To get a sense of the shortcomings at Carlos & Pepe’s, consider the $15.05 chicken quesadilla. The size was impressive, with two large, soft-flour tortillas melded together and cut in quarters, but the fillings were not, with a skimpy amount of shredded chicken hidden in the melted cheese. Or consider the $16.80 nacho platter. The appetizer featured a dozen forlorn tortilla chips arrayed in rows on a plate, three with king crab obscured by melted cheese, three with shredded chicken beneath a similar yellow and white glob of cheese, three with refried beans and cheese and — in a jarring splash of color — three with green and white dollops of guacamole and sour cream atop (you guessed it) cheese. It was more restrained than the typical mountain of chips heaped with toppings found at sports bars and most Mexican restaurants. Was it more refined? Hardly.
Still, the margaritas were strong and tasty (a wide variety starting at $12), the mud pie dessert ($8.60) was rich and decadent, and that gringo skirt steak ($21.65) was surprisingly tender and flavorful. The service was friendly, professional and efficient.
Apparently, there are many people who still love Carlos & Pepe’s, which opened in 1979, and the new owners do not want to tinker with tradition or upset regulars.
“I’ve been going there since I was in high school — the drinking age was 18 at the time,” co-owner Sandy Benz says. She is a Broward County native and retired nurse who bought the restaurant in June 2017 with husband John Benz, a healthcare executive. They have partnered with Roberto Martinez, the longtime manager.
“We’re on the third and fourth generation with some customers,” says Martinez, who grew up on a farm in Guatemala, and started as a busser in the restaurant’s first year.
Carlos & Pepe’s has the good fortune to be located on the busy and touristy Southeast 17th Street corridor between the airport and Port Everglades. It has endured for nearly four decades, an accomplishment that is impressive and baffling. Dave Alderman, a restaurateur and surfer from California, founded it with Burt Rapoport and Dennis Max. Rapoport and Max left after a few months, and they went on to become among South Florida’s most innovative restaurateurs.
Alderman stayed until selling in June. He was a character, in recent years living out of a van in the parking lot. He spent his days at a nearby Starbucks and his nights at the restaurant.
“He didn’t like large groups. He didn’t like reservations. He didn’t like kids, and he didn’t like happy hours,” John Benz says.
The new owners are working to change that, introducing weeknight happy hours from 5 to 7 p.m. and a children’s menu. They are considering restoring lunch service on weekends. But they are not going to revamp the menu or atmosphere, including red banquettes and walls decorated with Mexican tile.
The Benzes, who are philanthropically active and have started holding charity events at the restaurant, say they decided to get into the restaurant business because of Martinez. “I’ve known Roberto a long time,” Sandy Benz says. “He was worried, because Dave was close to selling to someone who was going to use cheaper ingredients and take shortcuts. I said, ‘We’ll buy it.’ ”
“Roberto is willing to put his life savings on the line,” John Benz says. “That’s someone I want to go into business with.”
The Benzes say maintaining a restaurant that has a longstanding connection to the community is important. “It’s a place where people care, and a place that people care about,” John Benz says.
Nostalgia is nice, but I say they should take a hard look at the food, perhaps bringing more authentic Mexican flavors to the mix. The ingredients are still good. It’s the execution that can be lacking. The blackened seafood fajitas ($23.75) featured plump sea scallops, decent shrimp and mahi-mahi that tasted fresh, but the dish was marred by seasoning that was more salty than spicy and peppers and onions that were greasy. Cast-iron stomachs might be a better match for the dish than cast-iron skillets. Martinez says the skillets are not sizzling when presented because the smoke bothers some customers, and he doesn’t want plates so hot that they overcook the food. That is akin to a French restaurant bringing out Champagne with the cork already popped.
There was a time when nearly everyone in town would go to Carlos & Pepe’s to drink, eat and have fun. Alderman could be exacting and difficult, Martinez says, but he always insisted on quality ingredients, such as king crab for the nachos and Haas avocados for the guacamole. Martinez carries on that tradition, making fresh salsa a gallon at a time for freshness.
But the good ingredients can get lost. The chimichanga ($17.35) remains a popular item, and a tablemate who likes Mexican food liked her chicken version. But I thought the fried exterior lacked crunch and the cheesy, beany, sour-creamy plate was an indistinguishable mashup of mush.
Some things never change. Carlos & Pepe’s was last formally reviewed by the Sun Sentinel in 1997, when critic M.L. Warren awarded it two stars and wrote, “For all the freshness of ingredients, we're still dealing here with a rather limited flavor palette, made even more uniform in appearance and flavor by upholstering most of the dishes with a durable layer of cheese.”
Twenty years later, the restaurant has proven equally durable. But palates keep getting more discerning, and the competition keeps getting stiffer. La Bamba, a popular regional Mexican chain, recently opened an outpost down the block, and El Vez, a hip Mexican-American eatery from acclaimed restaurateur Stephen Starr, is set to open at the W Fort Lauderdale on the beach this winter. Martinez’s rise from busboy to owner and the Benzes transition from loyal customers to partners make for a feel-good story at Carlos & Pepe’s. It would be nice if the food could transition to the 21st century and make an ascent, too.
Carlos & Pepe’s
1302 Southeast 17th St., Fort Lauderdale
954-467-8335 or CarlosAndPepesFl.com
Cost: Moderate. Appetizers and salads cost $6 to $17, mains $14 to $24, desserts $7.50 to $8.60.
Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. daily (until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and until 10 p.m. Sunday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full liquor with variety of margaritas
Noise level: Mellow and conversational in back room, lively in front bar
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot