Peppers at Uptown has delicious food, but so-so decor.
Is it a pizza and burger place, a casual bistro, or a fine dining establishment? Those were the questions that came to our minds after recently dining at Peppers at Uptown, in McAllen in South Texas. The food was quite spectacular and surprisingly upscale. The atmosphere was, well, confusing.
A friend suggested we dine at Peppers at Uptown and my brief research indicated this restaurant, tucked into one of the many strip-style shopping malls in the Rio Grande Valley, was known for burgers and pizza. When we walked in, the place looked like a cross between a Denny’s coffee shop and a sports bar – plenty of bright flat screen TVs, blond wooden tables and chairs, metal flower wall sculptures, and orangish upholstery on the booths. A raised bar dominated the space, making it feel more like a place for beer and nachos.
The menu was our first surprise. Mesquite burgers and thin-crust pizza were offered, but so were upscale appetizers like mini lump crab cakes and carnitas de ribeye, as well as fish and steak dishes served with sides like risotto and saffron rice.
Burger Beginnings, A Delicious Future
For many years, Peppers was a neighborhood burger place where kids would carve their initials into the rough wooden tables while eating classic burgers and fries. Times change and Peppers became a more upscale pizza and burger place. Today, they still sell fat, gourmet burgers with a variety of toppings and their brick oven bakes up thin crust pizzas.
Most recently, super talented Valley chef Richard Sauceda was brought in as general manager and chef to reinvent Peppers. It’s sorely needed and a brilliant move on the part of the owner, but they’re in the middle of figuring out what kind of restaurant Peppers is going to become. Chef Sauceda, who has been at the helm for only five months, has made some delicious changes and retooled much of the menu.
When we visited, Peppers at Uptown’s menu still featured their signature 10 ounce mesquite burgers and wood-fired pizza. However, Chef Sauceda had added some interesting dinner appetizers, including mini-crab cakes and mahi sliders, and a number of new entrees, many focused on local seafood like redfish and lump crab.
We started our meal with two appetizers: Agua Chilies and Carnitas de Res. The Agua Chilies, which came on a large white rectangle tray, was six thick slices of fresh cucumber, each topped with a tangy, ceviche-marinated and butterflied Gulf shrimp, with slices of creamy avocado, tomato bits, Serrano chili, cilantro leaves, and dollops of spicy green salsa. The big, meaty shrimp were nicely marinated, the avocado added a creamy richness, and the cucumber, tomato, and cilantro all lent freshness to this satisfying appetizer. We added a splash of fresh lime and a shake of salt for even more zing.
The Carnitas de Rib Eyewas one of those crazy good eats you shouldn’t make an everyday dietary staple, but it’s definitely a fun treat. Instead of using pork, Chef Sauceda cut fatty pieces of rib eye beef and fried them up super-crispy like chicharrones. He served them with a spicy red salsa and chips and it was an addictive pleasure we couldn’t stop eating.
Next came one of the chef’s super-thin crust margherita pizzas. It was big, eight generous slices topped with plenty of creamy mozzarella, whisper-thin slices of tomatoes, and shreds of fresh basil. It was tasty pizza, though, for our taste, the crust could have been a bit crisper.
Then came the real stars of the show. We ordered Chef Sauceda’s signature Espresso Rib Eye, a 16 ounce slab of 2-inch-thick juicy beef rubbed with the chef’s own concoction of ancho chili, paprika, mustard, coriander, red chili, sea salt, brown sugar, and freshly round espresso. It was a perfect medium pink and the rub gave this big beefy steak a complex and rich flavor that kept us coming back for “just one more bite.”
As she was taking yet another bite, Editor Anne Weaver, said, “I don’t usually like rubbed meat, but I love this rub. This guy can seriously cook.”
And she’s entirely write. Chef Sauceda is one creative guy who’s making all the right moves in this retaurant.
The huge Expresso Rib Eye was accompanied by a generous serving of chewy risotto studded with fresh corn kernels and big smoky pieces of bacon. It was also served with green beans cooked al dente. And while the sides were tasty, I must admit the large, über-delicious espresso-rubbed steak made these dishes largely an afterthought.
The other dish we ordered was The Red Drum, a fillet of grilled fresh red fish topped with white wine cream sauce, big chunks of lump crab meat, spinach, roasted tomatoes, and slices of fresh avocadoes. This was heavenly, incredibly rich and creamy. The fish was perfectly cooked and the three ounces of crab on top added a sweet-salty accent. The avocado, spinach, and tomato balanced the richness of the crab and the cream sauce.
The Red Drum came with saffron rice, a good choice that moderated the rich entrée, and onions, green beans, and chunky red potatoes.
After all that food (and, of course, we took leftover bags home), we certainly didn’t need dessert. However, we wanted to sample them. They make an in-house individual apple pie (takes 15 minutes to bake) and their cakes come from a local bakery. The cakes are quite good and, not surprisingly, the slices were big, enough for two to share. We ordered a slice of coconut cake –rich moist yellow cake filled with plenty of coconut and frosted with a creamy white icing. We also opted for the chocolate cake, a dark cake with a nice tooth and a satisfying chocolate flavor. The frosting was creamy and not overly sweet.
Real Bottom Line: Peppers at Uptown is a restaurant in search of its identity. On one hand, it’s an eatery that still thinks it’s a burger and pizza sports bar with TVs and a big, noisy, centrally-located bar. On the other, it’s trying to become a casual bistro with wonderfully creative and delicious food.
The new chef is doing a good job populating the menu with dishes that will make diners want to return again and again. But no one wants to pay $25-30 per plate and watch sweaty men play basketball on big TVs in the dining room. Let’s hope the décor at Peppers at Uptown catches up with its sumptuous food. Chef Sauceda’s inventive and flavorful food has already made Peppers at Uptown one of our favorite Rio Grande Valley eateries. If the décor is made to match his menu, we suspect Peppers at Uptown will become a favorite of many foodies in-the-know in South Texas. It certainly should be. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor www.peppersuptown.com