Mario Dovalina and Edwin Ptak established the original Pepe's Mexican Restaurant in 1967 in order to satisfy diners craving authentic Mexican dishes. With more than 40 locations in the Chicagoland area and northwestern Indiana and traditional eats that are sold across the United States and even in Mexico, Pepe's appeases a wide audience with its hearty options. Appetizers such as chips and fresh guacamole made daily or chili con queso ready bellies for veggie burritos bursting with seasonal vegetables. Flat-screen TVs broadcasting sports games or ballerina-wrestling matches dot the spacious walls at many of the chain’s casual eateries, keeping diners in their seats long after their shrimp, pork, or vegetable fajitas are finished.
Casa Santiago's talented chefs whip up fresh mole, ranchero sauce, and guacamole to spice up burritos and chimichangas. For breakfast lovers, the kitchen prepares spicy chorizo and eggs ranchero at all hours of the day, which can be delivered to the patio to guests soaking up summer rays. Behind the bar, bartenders concoct fruity frozen margaritas and serve bottled, imported brews to quench diners' thirst and complement each dish.
The Olive Gallery is more than a boutique store. It is a tasting room set up in the style of a Tuscan kitchen, a place to immerse oneself in flavor and explore the unexpected possibilities of artisan olive oils and vinegars. The room is filled with stainless-steel kegs called fustis, each filled with traditional, first-cold-pressed olive oils from locales such as Italy, California, Greece, or Chile. Some are filled with flavored oils, great for marinating meats or daubing onto pulse points, whereas others carry aged, flavored, or white balsamic vinegars.
The helpful staff members dole out storage tips and recipe advice for making the most of their wares, which include kitchen tools and specialty foods such as gourmet dip-mixes, spices, rubs, stuffed olives, and pastas. They also tout the health benefits of incorporating olive oil into your diet, citing lowered blood pressure, improved glycemic control, and possible anti-aging effects.
If a visit to one of Southern Belle's restaurants feels a lot like coming home, it might have something to do with the hearty family traditions behind the kitchen's down-home breakfast and lunch dishes. “My father was in pancake houses all his life,” says owner Steve Fotos. Today, many of the same recipes used by Steve's father help populate a menu of hearty comfort foods that includes a poached-egg and sausage benedict smothered in country gravy and french toast stuffed with cinnamon apples, strawberries and pecans, or blueberries and bananas. But while the country-fried-steak or smoked-sausage skillets are tempting, the expansive menu offers options for diets of all kind, pairing fluffy egg whites with strawberries, granola, and multigrain toast and swapping out regular maple syrup for bottles that are low-calorie, sugar-free, or simply sealed shut. Photos of farms and pastoral images smile down upon diners as they dig in and gently remind them to inquire about the restaurant's seasonal specials, which range from summertime salads with sun-ripened veggies to bowls of homemade wintertime chili.