Poncho N Pepe's is a party place.
Even on a Wednesday evening, the bar is packed and tables are filled, often with large, laughing groups. Everybody, from the hostess to the waiter, is friendly. It's bright, festive, and most of all, fun.
The Crofton restaurant opened in April in the space that housed Jasper's for more than two decades. Land and Sea Group, which owns Poncho N Pepe's along with several other area restaurants (including Buddy's on Main Street in Annapolis and Yellowfin Steak & Fish House), spent seven months renovating the interior of the restaurant prior to its opening.
Like Jasper's, Poncho N Pepe's sometimes feels like a maze inside. But with bright, tropical walls and a healthy smattering of sombreros and painted lizards, getting lost there wouldn't be so bad.
As soon as we sat down on a recent Wednesday night, our waiter, neatly decked out in an apron and pink tie, arrived with a basket of chips and dish of spicy salsa. Both are made in-house every morning, and the effort shows. The chips were warm and crispy and the salsa's fresh flavors could not have come from a jar.
We started with a Negra Modelo ($4) and a house margarita on the rocks ($7). The margarita was a standard take on the traditional drink, with just enough sweetness to balance the lime's acidity. It was tasty, but after spying Poncho N Pepe's specialty drink, the Margo ($11) on another table, we regretted our conservative order. The larger-than-life Margo, a frozen margarita topped with a Cornita (a small bottle of Corona), is the right drink for Poncho N Pepe's beach party vibe.
Table side guacamole service is popping up on Mexican restaurant menus all over the city, and it's a trend we hope sticks around. Poncho N Pepe's version ($12), a chunky mixture of super-ripe avocados, onion, garlic, cilantro, tomatoes, salt, lime and peppers, was prepared to order and served in a large stone pig.
We enjoyed the guacamole, though in retrospect, we should have asked for more spice and lime. The tableside presentation was a bit of a let-down. We had a full view of the inside of the guacamole cart, which was clean, but disorganized, and the young lady who made the guacamole didn't talk much. A little more theater and a few more preparation suggestions, would've been nice.
Minutes after the guacamole made it to our table, our dinners arrived. For the most part, the service at Poncho N Pepe's was prompt and friendly, but in this case, it was a tinge too quick. Rushing through the guacamole, we hastily rearranged the table to make room for entrees.
The Aculpulco fajitas ($20 with chicken, $22 with steak; both versions come with shrimp) arrived with the requisite fajita sizzle. We opted for chicken, and the dish was light on meat, but piles of thickly sliced, sweet onions and peppers made up for it.
Three large shrimp stuffed with Monterey Jack and jalapenos, then wrapped in bacon, added salt and heat to the dish – we ate them plain and sliced as part of a fajita. The melted cheese got lost under the jalapeno's heat, but the combination of smoky bacon, sweet shrimp and spicy jalapeno was a winner.
Chile rellenos ($10 with cheese, $13 with chicken, $14 with beef, $16 with shrimp), two large roasted and stuffed poblano peppers, were the biggest hit of the evening. The chicken-stuffed pepper's spicy verde sauce amped up the heat, and the chipotle sauce on the beef-stuffed pepper added a smoky edge to the dish.
Entrees at Poncho N Pepe's come with an assortment of side dishes, all of which were fresh and well-prepared. With the fajitas, we enjoyed a soupy bowl of savory refried beans – a far cry from the brown paste served at many Mexican joints. Grilled vegetables served alongside the chile rellenos boasted an impressive smoky char. And rice mixed with an herbaceous salsa verde added a fresh twist to both entrees.
Dessert, unfortunately, was not the restaurant's finest moment. Our churros ($5.95) arrived warm, but could have used another dusting of cinnamon sugar. With a sticky berry-flavored filling, they had the flavor (and charm) of a frozen breakfast toaster pastry.
After dinner, as we made our way back through the maze of rooms to the bar, we passed table after table of revelers toasting Margos and plowing through bowls of salty chips. Everybody was having a good time – and with good reason. With its sombrero-laden décor, Poncho N Pepe's might celebrate spring break every night of the week, but fresh flavors and spot-on preparations prove the restaurant can make more than just a mean margarita.
Poncho N Pepes
Back story: Opened in April in the old Jasper's space in Crofton, Poncho N Pepe's couples a fun, Spring-Break-in-Cancun vibe with fresh and capably prepared Mexican dishes.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: Poncho N Pepe's tableside guacamole is uber-fresh and prepared to order. Don't be afraid to ask for an extra squeeze of lime or a little extra heat.
Where: 1641 State Route 3 North, Crofton
Contact: 301-261-3505, ponchonpepes.com
Open: 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.); 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.); 2 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.); 2 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.)
Credit Cards: All major credit cards
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]