2516-½ University Avenue, North Park
It's not likely Don Pepe loaded up his first tamale cart thinking his name would echo through San Diego lore as a street food legend. Then, it's equally unlikely his pursuit of the American dream would stay within the confines of liquor store and laundromat parking lots. Still, upon visiting his new, all-tamales all-the-time storefront location, I do have to wonder whether the Don has an end game in mind.
If you've lived in San Diego longer than five years, at least one person has recommended "the best tamales in town…", and told you where to find a Don Pepe cart – if not by name, then at least by general vicinity. And if you've happened upon any iteration of "Delicious Tamales Pepe," you know how delightfully greasy and spicy the assorted fillings taste, and how beautifully moist the masa remains within each cornhusk and aluminum wrapper.
I've got nothing against food carts. Walking out of a bar or ballgame, I rarely care whether it’s a tamale, taco or bacon-wrapped hot-dog – I'm going to grab one and, if I don't leave the area immediately, probably another. However, I rarely leave the house planning a street cart excursion.
But when I saw the giant "Tamales" painted above a University Avenue storefront, I was intrigued. When I saw the neon sign declaring them "Tamales d'Pepe," I knew I'd have to pay a visit. I mean, he's given this new location a very French spelling, so how could it not be a step up from his long-celebrated cart fare?
Well, it's more of a step in. Turns out, parked inside the storefront is simply a big street cart.
There are some decorations — primarily fruit used in making the pineapple-mango drink steeping on ice in a giant jar atop the cart. But there're no frills, and not even a place to sit unless you're waiting for the number 7 bus at the stop out front. There are also at least four different phone numbers listed around the shop, in case you want to arrange for catering. But mostly, there are tamales.
Thing is, making a tamale is actually somewhat labor intensive, so it's natural Don Pepe would need a space to prepare them — the carts merely serve as incubators, really. So, in the back of the shop is where the magic happens. Up front just makes for a convenient spot to hawk pork, beef, chicken, spinach, coconut, and chile tamales at two bucks a pop. And it turns out I've hopped in my car just to pick up some street food and bring it home. And there's not even a convenient place to park.
Obviously, I could do — and have done — much worse than to head home with a ten dollar lunch feast (including drink). And though I know, intellectually, tamales alone are not enough to build a restaurant around, I'd kinda hoped the Don was ready to invest in an actual restaurant, to build around the myth, and maybe create a permanent and lasting fixture around his brand. Given how that brand's name, number and address keeps changing, it might be too much to hope that Pepe has anything in mind other than finding cheap little niches for his tamales all over town. After all, it seems to work.