Pepe Le Moko is one year and six months late to its own party. In the time since Eat Beat first broke the news of a bar planned for the subterranean space beneath downtown’s Clyde Common and Ace Hotel back in August of 2012—and following a series of on again, off again opening dates—“Pepe” has become a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for restaurant buzz and delay. After a particularly gnarly entanglement with the City of Portland, the wait is finally over: the windows are uncovered, oysters are being shucked, and the booze is flowing strong.
Through the entrance on 407 SW Tenth Avenue, you’ll find a wall of covetable pantry items, from Calabrian chiles and sardines to tiny, butcher-paper wrapped bocadillos (Spanish torpedo sandwiches) built with good Fleur de Lis bread, as well as a huge tray of fresh Oregon oysters on ice. These are merely distractions, curated by Pepe’s co-owner Nate Tilden (Olympic Provisions, Clyde Common). For the main event, descend down the dark flight of stairs to your left and through a beaded curtain.
Once your eyes have adjusted, you’ll see Portland’s star bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler (away from his usual post at Clyde Common) shaking, stirring, and pouring some of the city’s best cocktails from a fluorescent lit, stainless steel bar.
Pepe is part submarine, part Mediterranean cantina: a dark underground tunnel, hardly four feet across from bar to banquette, with a half-pipe for a ceiling and a big, tufted bar that glows with white light. Cushy booths line the tunnel’s patina walls, with a few nooks adorned with mini burlesque triptychs in the deepest recesses of the basement. In this windowless bunker, it’s easy to lose track of time.
For an underground bar whose name evokes cloak-and-dagger film noir, Pepe Le Moko is decidedly not a speakeasy.
You’ll find no Prohibition-era cocktails here. Instead, Morgenthaler is bringing back the cocktail pariahs: from a pitch-perfect, top shelf Long Island Iced Tea (yes, it’s possible) to a silky espresso martini featuring Stumptown coffee extract and lemon oil. Rather than lofty infusions or fussy tinctures, Morgenthaler makes small tweaks, like in his “Grasshopper”: a sweet, mint-flavored drink blended with vanilla ice cream, a menthol edge of Fernet, and a touch of sea salt. Forget your New Year’s resolutions— this is a mint ice cream milkshake from the heavens.
Does it live up to the hype? If you want to disappear for a few hours and sip stellar, oddball cocktails in a dark, intimate space, then the answer is an absolute yes. Some things are indeed worth the wait.
Pepe Le Moko
407 SW Tenth Ave.
Every day, 4pm-2am