I’ve been to Pepper’s a hundred times with my buddies at the old Food Lion shopping center, and with my wife and kids when it moved downtown. I’ve always stuck to my favorite standards. On this trip, however, nothing would be standard.
After a quick overnight trip with my youngest daughter to swim and camp in High Springs, Florida, we scurried home just in time for me to meet Karen Miller at Pepper’s for dinner. With my canoe still strapped to the top of the truck, I arrived to find Karen smiling her way toward me on the sidewalk. I was a little nervous about my new role as a food writer, but her gentle manner, the casual atmosphere, and the Latin hospitality helped put me at ease.
We were seated in a booth and were quickly served ice water, tortilla chips, and salsa fresca. Karen and I browsed the menu, and we were soon greeted by Vanessa Garcia and Juan Hurtado, our gracious hosts. After talking over our options, we decided to let Juan make the call for dinner.
After only a few minutes, a lava rock bowl known as a Molcajete (mol-kah-hay-tay), radiating heat and overflowing with awesome flavors, was placed on the table before us atop a custom-crafted wooden under liner. Perfect for sharing, the Molcajete is filled with grilled steak, chorizo, chicken, and shrimp, and garnished with caramelized green onion bulbs with delightfully charred tips, grilled banana peppers, and nopales. Scraped of its spines and washed, the nopales, or prickly pears, were sliced and then grilled until soft.
Somewhere in the swirl of flavor and conversation, Juan materialized with a margarita, complete with its own luscious wooden socle. The La Reina margarita is made with Don Julio Tequila, fresh orange juice, sweet and sour mix, and organic agave nectar, with a miniature bottle Grand Marnier by its side. After a pull from the straw and a salty sip, I had enough room to add the orange liqueur. The margarita, already refreshing and smooth, took on a complex citrus profile and richness that I would compare to slathering something you love in soft butter.
After emptying the cauldron of its contents and soaking up the remaining jus with our tortillas, I scooped the last little bits of meaty goodness onto crisp tortilla chips and offered one to Karen. We toasted the evening and savored the final morsels.
But one of the best bites of the evening may have been saved for the meal’s end. As we sat, suddenly we were presented with a slice of chocolate cake like you would have cut for yourself as a child if given the opportunity. Scented with espresso and layered with creamy frosting and caramel, it sealed an evening that could not have been better.
On our way out, with the running water of the fountain in my ears and a fantastic meal under my belt, I noticed a banner that read Bienvenidos hanging in the open-air bar, and welcome is exactly how you’ll feel at Pepper’s Mexican Grill & Cantina. Pepper’s is located at 530 Centre Street in downtown Fernandina Beach and open seven days a week. You can visit them at www.peppersmexicangrillandcantina.com .