Pepita Cantina, Ballston

I suppose you could say that Pepita Cantina is being graded on an auto-curve, because immediately before going there, I went to one of its “competitors,” if you could call it that.

One important thing to remember about Pepita Cantina is that it is first-and-foremost a *bar*, not a restaurant – I counted 21 pages of their book-form menu with items on it, and only 3 of those pages were filled with food offerings. Structurally, it’s a pillbox, yet has three television sets – for those who remember, it has a similar shape to the old Eleventh Street Lounge; for the younger set among us, it has a similar feel to El Chucho.

Both men working the bar were busy prepping, and it was tough to get their attention at first, but once my service began, it was top-notch. Like its competitor (which should not be named in the same essay), Pepita has a “Football” portion on their menu, with a small list of drink and bar-snack specials during football games – given that this was a Sunday, I took advantage of that: Both items here were purchased at these special, lower prices, and are normally several dollars more expensive.

My kindly bartender asked me for my drink order, and I asked for a Rickey ($7) without any sugar (which I guess is termed an “Original Rickey”). Although he exuded warmth and confidence, while he was making my drink, I wasn’t at all certain he’d ever made a Rickey before, as he was looking down like he was reading something while making the drink – he then came back over and asked me if I’d like it with Bourbon or Gin. “Gin,” I said. Off he went again.

And when he came back the second time, he had made me a splendid version of this wonderful drink, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Oh, curse the first bartender that decided to add sugar to a Rickey – it’s perfect like it is, and there’s no need to tamper with something that already works.

This was a fairly large cocktail, and halfway through, I needed some food, as I hadn’t eaten all day (unless you want to consider my previous, erm, meal “eating”). I normally wouldn’t order a Mexican Pizza ($7), but it, too, was on the Football menu, and I’m a sucker for refried beans – it’s a personal, six-piece “pizza” made with a paper-thin “crust,” that was basically a tortilla, served almost like a pie, stuffed and then topped. The backbone of this was the underutilized picadillo – which I could eat every day – along with refried beans, tomato, and queso. There were also some very welcome, unannounced toppings such as some type of bulbs, perhaps the bases of leek, and some slices of what seemed like thin, red jalapeño; the former adding texture, the latter adding a judicious bit of heat.

After what I’d just suffered through, Pepita Cantina came out looking like The French Laundry. It really is just a tiny little cantina, and it probably gets thumping-loud on the weekends, but the restrooms were squeaky clean, the drink selection is far-reaching, and my humble little Mexican Pizza was very good – someone here cares about things, and I think diners would be served well going during off-hours, going sooner rather than later, and capitalizing on the specials – this food might not win any awards, but it isn’t designed to – it’s tasty and if you go at the right times, it’s gently priced.

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