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April 26, 2010

RoCK to Tio Pepe: Stay with me

Tio Pepe's sangria

Here it is Monday, but it feels like a Friday. In one respect, anyway: I've got a fresh Free Market Friday post from Robert of Cross Keys for you. He sent this to me Friday, but I had to be out of the office most of the day and couldn't post it. I tried to make it up to RoCK by crediting him for a frog photo Meekrat took at Asia Market, but that wasn't good enough. He asked me to hold the post until today, when you'd all be back at work, goofing off, reading the blog. So here's RoCK. LV

Last week I went to Tio Pepe’s with a gift certificate . . . from 1982.

It was around 1982 that I first became familiar with Tio Pepe’s. I didn’t go there back then. I was a kid in Aberdeen and at that time my restaurant world was comprised of the Cloverleaf Diner and the Golden Corral. For fancy occasions, I might end up at the Colonel’s Choice. My parents, on the other hand, would go there for dinner parties or business meetings. I can remember asking to go, hearing: “You wouldn’t like it, it's not for kids.”  In my mind, Tio Pepe’s was the adult restaurant.  It was sophisticated and, if you’ll pardon the Ron Burgundy lingo, classy.   

I never did make it there as a kid. I went to Tio Pepe's for the first time a couple of years ago -- last week was the second. I enjoyed both meals, but something was missing. It was not that they were great once, and now they are bad. It wasn’t Rod Stewart with The Faces compared with Rod Stewart solo. We’re not talking about going from the heights of "Stay with Me" to the depths of "Young Turks." No, this was more like the Rolling Stones. You can still get your fill of the old favorites, but that magic you either heard about or experienced won’t be there.

On this most recent visit I started with a pitcher of sangria. Now, many will dismiss this fruity concoction, but I love it. Sangria is just fun. Think about it: sangria isn’t anything like, say, tequila. No one has too much sangria and starts a fight. Perhaps a song and dance break out, but never a fight.

Next up were appetizers. As a traditionalist, I had to explain to the wife that we were definitely getting the garlic shrimp. She wanted the Mediterranean seafood cocktail. Of course we ended up getting both.

The garlic shrimp were very good. The shrimp were generous in number and very tender. The sauce was both rich and full of garlic flavor, while not being too heavy or bitter. If the bread would have been better, I would have finished off all the sauce. When I talked to people familiar with Tio Pepe, they would always rave about the bread. What I had was cold and doughy. Maybe it was an off night. Maybe in comparison to the awful Italian bread and dinner rolls that were, and still are, a mainstay in this town, the bread at Tio Pepe’s was good in a relative sense.

The Mediterranean seafood cocktail was like something out of the 1950’s. Chilled shrimp, lobster and other seafood mixed with cantaloupe and tossed in Russian or French dressing (I say Russian and the wife says French). The seafood was fresh, but I thought the cantaloupe made the dish too sweet. As for the Russo-Franco dressing, it was not that it didn’t taste good, it was more that is hid the flavor of the seafood.

Next up was the main course. The wife started talking about Dover Sole. Look, I like that fish, but that’s not why I went there. I suggested instead we go with the paella for two. I thought for sure she would fight me, as she normally does whenever I suggest anything that is a one pot or pan dish, like cassoulet or jambalaya, where everything is mixed together. Contrary to my assumption, she embraced the idea.

The paella was simply great. Lobster, clams, muscles, shrimp, veal, chorizo, chicken and vegetables all combined with saffron rice. The key to this good paella, outside of quality ingredients, was cooking it in one pan and cooking it in stages. The one pan allowed the flavors to meld, and it produced those delightful, crunchy pieces that stuck to the bottom. The cooking in stages made it possible to avoid the choice of tender shrimp or undercooked chicken. I found all of the individual ingredients to be cooked perfectly.

Dessert was another show down of tradition versus something new that ended with ordering two things. I went with the pine nut roll. I loved how the salty and crunchy pine nuts played off the sweet cream. The wife had a chocolate roll. It was tasty, but I found it to be simply sweet without any of the contrasting flavors the pine nut roll offered.

The décor at Tio Pepe’s reminded me a little of the house I grew up in back in Aberdeen.  My parents were married in the '60’s, and the furniture they bought had quite the Iberian flair. We had wood carvings of conquistadors, wall moldings of sword fighters, and paintings of Spanish senoras. Tio Pepe’s doesn’t have as much style as my old house, but it definitely has some 1960’s charm to it.

As I sat there, my thoughts turned to what Tio Pepe’s was like back in the '60’s, '70’s and '80’s. I imagined it was quite the scene, filled with smoke and people wearing suits and cocktail dresses.  

You won’t see any of that today. Outside of some flambé dishes, there’s no smoke, which is probably a good thing considering the low ceilings in their cellar dining room. There was a good crowd, but it was by no means filled.  The waiters were still clad in the customary red tuxedos, and some of the diners were wearing jackets or dresses, but I saw a lot of them in jeans and even T-shirts. I’m not talking about designer jeans and T-shirts, and I wouldn’t have considered that OK, but one guy was in there wearing a Drexel University Alumni T-shirt. Really? You go to Tio Pepe’s and you opt to wear something from the college bookstore? At one time, the manager would have given him a jacket to wear while dining.  Today, nobody wants to hassle anyone.  The individual comfort of this guy and others like him comes at the expense of the Tio Pepe experience, which is a loss for all of us.  

I was able to experience the food, the drink and the décor of Tio Pepe’s, but I really would have liked to have been a part of its old magic. Then again, I also missed out on the Faces. Unfortunately, time, just like Ronnie Wood, moves on.

Tio Pepe's sangria. Sun photo by Kim Hairston. See RoCK's photos of his trip to Tio Pepe’s.


Posted by Laura Vozzella at 5:18 AM | | Comments (15)


I always enjoyed the food there but stopped going there in the 80's when they turned away a guy who was wearing a racing cap. He was told to take it off due to restaurant rules and it was clear that this man was going thru chemo and had lost all his hair. He was wearing a suit and it must have been a special occasion because he was taking two lovely ladies (one older and one younger) to dinner. When they would not let him keep the cap on, I turned to my date and said I was leaving and taking my money to a restaurant that had some compassion.

always enjoyed the food there but stopped going there in the 80's when they turned away a guy who was wearing a racing cap. He was told to take it off due to restaurant rules and it was clear that this man was going thru chemo and had lost all his hair. He was wearing a suit and it must have been a special occasion because he was taking two lovely ladies (one older and one younger) to dinner. When they would not let him keep the cap on, I turned to my date and said I was leaving and taking my money to a restaurant whose staff had some compassion.

An old co-worker of mine always raved about the suckling pig and the pine nut cake. I must try both in her honor one of these days.

I've been known to frequently announce (when appropriate) "Wow! Not just Rod Stewart, but Rod Stewart AND The Faces!" There's an encyclopedia of difference there! Especially when you leap forward to "New(ish)" Rod doing old standards (ew!)

Splendid review, RoCK. Clear, flavorful, well-written. Don't know what you do to earn the simoleons to pay your restaurant tabs but if you ever look for another line of work, you could easily take up restaurant reviewing. Although given the eateries you've critiqued on your own dime, that would probably put a crimp in your standard of living. As for Tio Pepe, next time you go, try the black bean soup. Rich, silky smooth, luscious.

Well, I had a $50 gift certificate from Tio Pepe's. I'm sure $50 would have bought a nice meal back in 82'. Nevertheless, it turned a $130 meal into a $80 meal, which isn't cheap but it is doable.

I feel like every time I walk into the Target I end up spending $80. I'll gladly give up a trip to the Target tomorrow for some garlic shrimp today.

great. now i'm salivating.

As the other diner involved, I would agree with RoCK's assessment, except for this: the seafood cocktail was more Venus and the shrimp in garlic sauce was more Mars.

I liked the light, fruity, fresh seafood combo. The shrimp in garlic tomato sauce that splashed all over the place? Not so much. RoCK likes things in restaurants where you have to sop up everything with a loaf of bread and I don't.

Great review RoCK, as always.

I have to say, you are dead on in regards to people dressing too casually in nice restaurants these days. My boyfriend and I love Morton's, and we go there fairly frequently. The last time we went (he in a suit, I in pearls) there was a table seated near us with everyone in jeans and sweatshirts and tennis shoes. And they weren't the only table dressed like that. My boyfriend and I were the ones in the minority. It diminishes the experience, and you want that experience when you are paying almost $200 for dinner for two.

Also, I wanted to mention, I love Tio Pepe's garlic shrimp, but I think that Nacho Mama's version blows them out of the water (believe it or not). To be fair, I haven't been to either restaurant in years, but I do recall that for the price and the flavor that NM was terrific.

Rules to live by:

1. You Can Never Overdress

25. Respect dress codes. You’ll have more liberty to be funny.

93. Make sure your clothes fit properly.

113. When in doubt, wear a tie.

304. If you choose to wear a tie, commit. Button your top button.

(See also: 82. The most expensive restaurant is NEVER the best.)

I always wear pearls or diamonds with my jeans.

We've covered the whole "dress for diner" thing before. I've always it was a bit of a cop out for men to wear a regular old business suit and consider themselves "dressed up for dinner." If it's a business dinner I guess it makes sense, but otherwise, they're not really dressed up. IMO.

I don't think that everyone needs to wear a suit to go to Tio Pepe's. I was in sport coat after all when I went. I do think, however, that dress code discretion for fine dining ends well before college t-shirt.

My wife and I dine out once a week. In most cases the dress code is Business Casual. I have begun to believe that to some people, that means what you might wear to a Pig Picken, surly must be appropriate attire to lets say Oceanair. We find it quite disrespectful to everyone else in the restaurant who have taken the time to dress appropriately. To us going out is always special and treat it as such. It’s not that hard to be comfortable and still look nice. The only restaurant that still requires a sport jacket is Oregon Grill.

One of my favorite food memories was ordering a pine nut cake for a dinner I was having at home. They took me into the kitchen and let me watch as they assembled the cake. From a pan stacked with what looked like sponge cakes for a jelly roll they pulled one off the top spread it with custard, rolled it, mixed custard with whipped cream spread that on the outside, sprinkled the top with pine nuts and confectioners sugar put the whole thing in a box and sent me on my way. It took about 15 minutes. One piece was leftover from my dinner I had it with a cup of the the next breakfast ever!

Only fresh sea food is delicious, we need to keey it fresh throught Sodium Tripolyphosphate.Because Sodium Tripolyphosphate is used in various applications such as a preservative for seafood, meats, poultry and pet foods.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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