Capi's detours south of the border 

But it's not just another Mexican restaurant.

KICK THE COLD: Capi's posole will warm you up. - BRIAN CHILSON
Does Little Rock really need another Mexican restaurant?

The familiar question (my answer, by the way, is, always "sure") might be prompted by a quick glance at the revamped menu at Capi's in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center.

Menu headings include tacos, enchiladas and tamales. There's an appetizer, despite a different name, that could pass for cheese dip.

But Capi's is not another Tex-Mex eatery. Nor is it another platform for a happy clan of immigrants turning out the cooking of their homeland modified for perceived Arkansas tastes. It is more like Diana Kennedy come to town.

Peck (the cooking genius behind Trio's) and partner Brent Peterson have long had a passion for south-of-the-border cooking. And I mean not just Mexico, but Central America, the Caribbean and beyond. Trio's once featured a month of Latin specialties each May. Fresh and unusual ocean fish; unusual herbs; exotic vegetables and fruits were carefully prepared and made for great, change-of-pace dining.

Peck, struggling a bit to find a niche for the sleek mallville setting of her second restaurant, decided to jettison the original concept of "small plates" or tapas. I'll miss the macaroni and cheese and lots more, but I confess to having faced obstacles at times in composing coherent meals from the many choices. For one thing, the plates weren't small enough. Generous isn't a bad thing, but the prices added up.

Never mind the old. In with nuevo Latino. Hardly a hint remains of old dishes, save some familiar dessert favorites from Trio's and a couple of standard salads. In its place are dishes that, even when familiar, exhibit details that set them apart from the neighborhood taco truck.

Some flavors will prove a challenge to some eaters, though the comprehensive menu descriptions should prevent surprises. We tried carne asada enchiladas for example. If Brenda's excellent corn tortillas from the 65th Street tortilleria weren't the base, they came from a similarly expert provider. The filling? Striking. Beef strips were surprisingly tender for grilled skirt steak and cloaked in a mahogany sauce that didn't bite with pepper but romanced with aromatics, particularly what seemed a LOT of cinnamon. This is classic in its way. (Even Greek chili parlor chili has a dash of cinnamon.) But it's a departure from norm around here.

This is a good spot to jump to the tamales (chicken, cheese and pork), classics of the Mexican genre, not Delta-style like you find at Doe's. Peck stuffs hers admirably. The corn mush doesn't overwhelm the fillings. They are steamed, Oaxacan style, in banana leaves, which produces a moist, almost fall-apart tamale with a scent of vegetable. Complex seasonings that tingle modestly, rather than burn, are the key here.

We also had some real winners in the seafood category.

There was Mexican paella ($21 and available only after 5 p.m.). It was more soup than rice-dominated paella, but I have no cause to complain about a shortage of rice when a chile medley fires up lobster bisque stock. The star of the dish was abundant seafood, added in just the right order so that all the key elements — mussels, scallops, shrimp, halibut — were plump, moist and tender.

I've saved the best for last but you'll order it first — or at least right after a complimentary bowl of chips with pulpy, smoky, tomato-sweet salsa. It's gambas al ajillo, or shrimp with garlic. Lots of garlic. There were lots of big, moist, sweet shrimp bathed in an oil and garlic sauce atop a thick tangle of pasilla chile debris. Ever had barbecued shrimp at Manale's in New Orleans? Capi has taken that dish on a quick trip to Mexico. More bread for sopping, please!

We loved a brunch visit (weekends, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.). The place was crammed post-church and a heaping bowl of spicy posole, chock full of shredded pork and hominy with all the requisite condiments (radish, lettuce, cheese) on the side, was just the thing for a frigid day. Warming, too, was a masa-thickened bowl of lively tortilla soup, as good as you'll find for miles around. The huge hit though was the breakfast quesadilla — crispy tortillas stuffed with mellow white cheese, scrambled eggs, crunchy bacon and creamy avocado chunks. Roasted potatoes and tingly pico de gallo came with them. This dish is a lot of food for $8.50.There's juice, cocktails and bottomless cups of hot coffee.

Capi's hummed early on a Saturday evening, too, with most tables full and a few stylish folks perched at the small bar or the high cocktail tables beneath the light-strung "tree that grows out of the bar. Be sure to peruse the drink menu, also a place for innovation, as well as interesting wine choices. There's a fresh take on the margarita that I liked well enough to try twice — a smooth, high-end tequila blended with plenty of lime and distinctive agave nectar. And shoot me, but I still appreciate a place with several beer choices on draft, particularly when the food is interior Mexican or American Southwest.

The menu cries for a special dessert to match. Flan is sometimes available and coconut mousse also seems like a fit with south of the border fare. But old Trio's favorites — raspberry cream pie, peanut butter/chocolate pie and banana delight never disappoint, no matter the setting.


11525 Cantrell Road

Pleasant Ridge Town Center


Quick bite

Fresh herbs, a cornucopia of chiles and fresh seafood are among the twists that set Capi Peck's nuevo Latino cooking apart from the many other Latino entries in the market. Don't miss brunch, particularly the quesadillas.


11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

Other info

Credit cards accepted. Full bar.


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