Maybe you’ve heard of Pepe the Frog, an internet meme of a rather morose looking green creature that’s been co-opted by the fashionable fascists known as the alt-right. Its usage is so prevalent that the appearance of the frog-face emoji in someone’s social media handle or bio indicates Aryan allegiance in the same manner as a swastika armband.
But there’s another animal named Pepe, this on much less well known, even on its home turf. And unlike its hopping Hilterian counterpart, this Pepe represents something much more wholesome and worthwhile — a taqueria.
Located on Greensboro’s East Market Street well beyond the campus of NC A&T University, Pepe el Toro Taqueria is an outpost, one of the lone dining options in the immediate vicinity. There’s a corner store named Apple Tree Grocery nearby, and Skippers Hot Dogs is within sight, but that’s about it unless you pop over to Boss Hogs or another hole in the wall on East Bessemer. Presumably drawing its name from the 1953 Mexican boxing film, it’s the perfect place to land a tiny blow to white supremacy.
In most respects, Pepe el Toro is your average neighborhood taqueria, drawing in a predominantly Latinx clientele with standard fare and a small market. But it’s more compact than most, including small shops like El Mercadito on Gate City Boulevard which boasts a fuller selection of dry goods, products and certainly baked goods, produce and meat. It’s dwarfed by San Miguel, another Mexican restaurant in east Greensboro over on Yanceyville Street, and the restaurant portion is roughly equivalent to the venerable Mi Casita in the southwestern part of the city.
Just about the only similar shops that rank as smaller than Pepe el Toro — while still qualifying as dining establishments and not just mini markets — are the city’s slew of taco trucks.
Even so, on a recent Thursday night the shelves that would hold bakery items and produce appeared vacant, as if they hadn’t been stocked rather than as if they’d been picked clean. The adjacent meat counter too — despite prominent billing — didn’t have anything to offer, at least not that evening. That left one reason, save for some household essentials and cheap dry goods on a couple shelves, to visit Pepe: the prepared food.
For those who live in this area of town, Pepe el Toro provides the regular suite of Mexican-centric Latin cuisine, including fajitas, tacos and tortas, as well as somewhat less common but still popular items including menudo, Salvadoran-style pupusas and antojitos, the range of small plate offerings including tostadas de ceviche, sopes, huaraches and gorditas. All of the antojitos (including the pupusas) are cheap, available in tandem or trio for around $8. Patrons seeking variety can switch it up as well, selecting a pupusa, sope and gordita (all roughly the same price) rather than a triplicate of one.
And if the menu ended there, that would be enough reason to stop by. Kids can get cheesy nachos for just $2 (or “macaroni and mashed potatoes” for $4), and there’s even a California-style burrito at Pepe, a surprisingly rare find in the Triad where most restaurants opt for the smothered fork-and-knife approach.
It would be easy to overlook the most compelling reason of all to come in, the thing that makes a trip across the city to this modest, minor player in the Gate City’s food scene: the suadero and campechanos.
I can’t recall ever seeing either of these meat choices on a menu before, though my friend Sam who came along said he’d run into suadero in the Triangle and loved it.
Campechanos, my research indicates, is a generally a mix of pork and beef served on a taco, as is offered at Pepe El Toro, though there are naturally some varied recipes listed online, particularly featuring a spread of pork options. The term translates to “hearty,” which makes sense, and while I couldn’t back up the theory, I wondered if it has ties in the Mexican state of Campeche, on the Yucatan peninsula and bordering Guatemala and a sliver of western Belize as well as the Gulf of Mexico and other Mexican states.
In this case, the campechanos is pork sausage and beef, certainly making for a hearty, delicious and somewhat spicy bite of taco that comes with a handful of cilantro, some small-diced onion and radish and cucumber slices on the side (I ate the cucumber separately). They taste even better with a dash of hot sauce.
My first trip to Pepe el Toro, I swore the suadero was my favorite, but on my second visit I leaned towards the mix of flavors in the campechanos, while also enjoying the carnitas, pollo and particularly al pastor.
Suadero is a tough cut of beef between the belly and the leg, and while there are slightly different ways people prepare it, the general agreement appears to be that it should be cooked low for a long period of time and cut into bitty pieces so that it’s easier to chew. Some cooks gently fry it before serving, and people disagree on the best way to season it (though several recipes call for some sort of citrus, like orange). It’s overwhelmingly served on tacos and associated with Mexico City and the surrounding central parts of the country.
If your mouth isn’t watering at least a little, I don’t think we can be friends.
The campechanos are arguably more dynamic in flavor, which makes sense because the dish possesses more ingredients. And the variation in my opinion could have more to do with how the suadero was prepared on one day compared to the next visit about a month later. Make of it what you will, but both of these beefy tacos are absolutely worth the trip, and despite international popularity, are in limited supply in this area.
Visit Pepe el Toro Taqueria at 2101 E. Market St. (GSO) or find it on Facebook.