By Dan Harkins
ORMOND BEACH - It may be a successful chain restaurant, but nothing about Peppers Mexican Grill & Cantina is canned or rubber-stamped.
This is a gourmet culinary experience with surroundings to match. High-backed booths and intricate tile work line the walls and floors inside this spacious space, at 794 S. Atlantic Ave. Giant Mexico-themed paintings project the restaurant's mission: creating an authentic vibe with an artistic twist. Adding to the ambiance is Spanish music and family matriarch Anita Lopez handing out every table's warm chips and cilantro-laced salsa.
"Sometimes, tourists will see the restaurant and kind of think, 'This is going to be expensive,'" said owner Hugo Lopez, "but then they look at the menu and say, 'Wow!'"
Though none of the prices drift much higher than $14 per entree, the freshness, quantity and creativity of the food reflect a much higher price tag.
Some of the food even comes out flaming. Take the Queso Fundido appetizer ($6.99): grilled mushrooms, onions and poblano peppers combined with chicken or chorizo sausage that's then combined with the Lopez family's signature white wine sauce - salsa flameado or flaming sauce - before mozzarella cheese melts down over everything in the oven. The finishing touch is a light spritz of grain alcohol to keep a flame going until the food is at the table and ready to eat.
"That's our most popular appetizer," said Mr. Lopez.
It's one of several recipes made distinctive through a few decades of trial and error.
Enrique Lopez moved to North Carolina from Mexico in 1992. Two years later, his wife and children followed.
Mexican restaurants the family planted there and in Kentucky were short-lived, but success finally came when they moved south to Georgia and Florida.
At present, the family owns eight Peppers restaurants from St. Mary's, Ga., to Panama City, most of which are run by family members. In Ormond Beach, mother Anita works the front of the house and father Enrique holds down the kitchen.
"It feels good," said Ms. Lopez in Spanish, "to have my sons and daughters running them. It makes everything easier."
On the menu, Latin favorites like fajita platters, fish tacos, fresh ceviche, mole poblano chicken, quesadillas and carnitas vie for attention with family recipes that attempt to tweak traditional dishes.
The Mariachi ($13.99), for example, features grilled grouper smothered in shrimp, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro. Another family recipe, the Shrimp Cancun ($11.99) flame-broils shrimp, crispy bacon, cheese and mushrooms then douses it in wine sauce for a fajita wrap specially geared toward titillating taste buds.
Fear not, though: The menu includes a half-dozen vegetarian offerings. It even has chicken nuggets for children who have yet to broaden their palates. All of it is available at the restaurant's cantina, too -which offers two-for-one drinks at happy hour, 4 to 8 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays.
On Friday, live music aims to keep the tabs open long after bellies are full. Desserts like a fried banana burrito, flan and caramel-stuffed churros will set you even deeper into your seat.
It might take a while to digest the main course and make room for more.
"We serve big portions," noted server Pedro Ruvalcaba, "so to be honest, not a lot of people want dessert here."
Nevertheless, sticking around isn't hard to do at this point, especially with everything so clean and aesthetically pleasing.
"When you first come into this restaurant, it can be a bit different than other Mexican restaurants," Hugo Lopez said. "What we try to get out there is that they can find this restaurant clean and beautiful. Other restaurants, you might go in and smell grease and things like that. You might see dirt. But even if you walk into the kitchen right now, you'll find the floor, everything, clean."
Indeed, the kitchen was spotless.
Peppers Mexican Grill & Cantina is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays - Thursdays, until 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and until 9 p.m. on Sundays. Call (386) 673-7668 for reservations.