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Don Pepe: Travel to South America without passport

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DON PEPE

84-07 Northern Blvd.

Jackson Heights

779-3100

"I feel as though I'm in a foreign country," she said.

We were supping in the two-month-old Don Pepe on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights. My guest was seated facing a family of six - mama, papa, grandma and grandpa and the two children. As they happily feasted on dishes from their native land, a mini -satellite TV overhead displayed programs from there.

At Don Pepe's, the walls, painted a soft blue and dotted with stars, are flanked by brick. I was facing a most attractive, rear lighted, glass brick bar. It's used for serving and hearty breakfasts with soup and coffee 24 hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. The whirring of the blender whipping up luscious Latin fruit drinks, milk or water based, and the gurgling of the espresso machine emanate from there. A bright, white open kitchen adjoins It's a great little place with very good food - very good inexpensive food. Our dinner for two was $35 and that adds to its charm. Rafael Luque from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn got the idea of opening a restaurant, and Jackson Heights with its big Colombian community was the place to be. It was his wife's idea to name it Don Pepe to add a European flavor. She's from there, Poland, in fact.

While perusing the Spanish/English menu, we sipped "limonada" (lemonade) a bitter - just perfect for me - lemonade with a lime wedge and a lime accent. There is also pony malta, an ale-like beverage.

We went "plantains" and ordered arepa, the stuffed corn cakes, pizza (terrific selections), yucca frita and a tamale as well as two specialities Specialties are served at dinner.

Anyone who has been to a Colombian restaurant here or there knows arepa, the national bread, a silver-dollar size custardy corn pancake. At Don Pepe, they are an art form and served stuffed. I've had them with white cheese before , but these were a cross between a burger and a Maine lobster roll - hard to beat. The arepa, thick and round like a hamburger roll, is filled with a shrimp mayonnaise salad. There's Romaine and a tomato slice and you may opt to tuck that in. We did. Other possibilities are: chopped meat, chicken, egg, sausage, pork skin - delicious, inch-thick, hot-dog shaped.

My especialidades was bandeja paisa, an array of grilled or ground beef, rice, beans, pork skin, egg, avocado, corn cake and sweet plantain. The execution was tops. Steak, barely a fourth-inch thick, was precision cut, and so large, they tucked the end under on the plate. The rice was delightfully moist, beans plump and meltingly tender, an avocado wedge with a lime wedge, and for contrast, the deliciously sweet, fried plantain.

She was content with two grilled pork chops served on the side, a plate of rice and a side dish of beans cooked with ham hocks with juices to spoon over the rice. Our salad was topped with transparently thin sliced onion and a sprinkling of canned peas (by tradition) and a lime wedge. We doggy-bagged.

Sampling dessert is a must for a reviewer. She chose ice cream, expecting an array of exotic flavor choices. There was vanilla. Period. But it turned out to be vanilla ice cream like no other. Think semi freddo - half-frozen. Think soft ice cream. Think fluffy, whipped cream, textured ice cream and you have Don Pepe's vanilla ice cream. I chose flan but this was flan de queso, cheese pudding. A wedge was served, flanked by a kiwi slice and fluff of whipped cream topped with a maraschino cherry.

Don Pepe's coffee was half way between cafe au lait and cappuccino. Very nice. As for espresso, after the last sip, I checked the bottom of the cup and there it was, a twist of lime.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A little gem of a coffee shop restaurant. Latin cuisine. Stuffed arepas featured. Specialties served at dinner. Hearty soups at breakfast and lunch. English-speaking service. Deliciously inexpensive.

CHEF'S CHOICE

Arroz Con Pollo (rice with chicken,

sweet plantain, salad or french

fries)...$7

Churrasco (steak, fried potatoes, rice

and salad)...$15

Bandeja Paisa (grilled beef, rice,

beans, pork skin, avocado, corn cake,

sweet plantain)...$9

Arepa con Camarones (stuffed corn

cake with shrimp)...$6

Salchipas (sausage with french fries,

egg, potato)...$5.50

Brevas con Arequipe y Queso (figs

with avequipe cheese)....$3

Food: Latin

Setting: Coffee shop restaurant

Service: English speaking. Very nice,

Hours: B, L, D 7 days. Sat. & Sun., 24

hours

Parking: Street

Location: N side of boulevard,

between 84th and 85th streets

Dress: Casual

Children: Own menu

Credit cards: Not yet

Private parties: To 62

Takeout: Yes

Noise level: High when crowded

Smoking: None

Handicapped accessible: Yes

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