Around here, The Red Pepper is kind of a big deal, bordering on legendary. Red Pepper is known for their take on Mexican food including tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and grinders that are deli sandwiches topped with taco meat. According to their website, they source local beans and bread, purchase meat ground by a local company, and make their sauces daily.
The original Red Pepper opened in Grand Forks, ND over 35 years ago and has since expanded into two additional locations. Red Pepper has been making headlines in Fargo since last summer when they began to scout for locations. Their soft opening on March 16th was highly anticipated and word quickly spread via the newspaper and social media outlets. The author of Grand Forks Gourmet, Grand Forks’ most frequently updated food blog, mentions Red Pepper offers late hours and is popular amongst intoxicated college students. This author’s not crazy about Red Pepper’s food, but acknowledges how it holds a special place in hearts of its devoted fans. Red Pepper’s rumored to serve a notorious Garbage Plate of which the leftover toppings left on the counter are collected and placed on top of a tostada.
My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to experience The Red Pepper for myself.
On the first day of Red Pepper’s soft opening, the line was out the door. I waited for 20 minutes before going home. The inside of the store was chaos where people were squished like sardines. Because there were no line markers, no one really knew which way the line moved and this encouraged a lot of cutting, or what we referred to as “budging” in grade school. People arrived by the vehicle-fulls and let their families into line. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the line moved, but it really hadn’t.
Within my 20-minute wait, I only moved ahead about six steps. I was especially puzzled that I hardly saw anyone leave with food, despite the fact that there were only a small amount of tables, one of which remained empty. While the mob wasn’t entirely friendly, it wasn’t entirely hostile. The woman behind me told me how much she liked Red Pepper’s food with so much sincerity that some of my building frustration melted. I returned two more times within the next week and a half during non-meal times, but the line was still out the door. Nearly two weeks later, my husband begged me to try again and pick up cheese tostadas and this time, the line was shorter.
I ordered three cheese tostadas ($1.65 each), a whole Everything Grinder ($8.99), and a four-ounce cup of hot sauce. Then, I waited. Each order took quite a while to complete and I assume this is because the employees are still getting used to the food preparation processes. As far as I could tell, nothing was being cooked freshly, just assembled. I noticed a hot food holder containing items like beans and taco meat, a cold sandwich station, heated drawers that held chips, and four microwaves, double stacked. The doorway to the kitchen lies just out of sight and I caught a glimpse of corn starch boxes perched high atop a shelf.
Employees offer those who dine-in and order sandwiches the option of having them heated. I observed this means microwaving them for exactly 20-seconds. Oddly enough, the tostadas I ordered were not heated. They were topped with cold cheese and wrapped, as is. Since it looked like the microwave was Red Pepper’s only active heating apparatus, I decided to just let Jake decide whether or not he wanted to microwave them at home.
From start to finish, I was out the door in about 20-minutes. There had been approximately six people ahead of me in line when I arrived, and, by the time I left, the line had become longer. The service was very pleasant, though slow.
Let’s discuss the tostadas, first.
These just weren’t very good. A crunchy corn tortilla topped with cold cheddar cheese and scribbled with a mild, red sauce. I am still stunned by the fact that the tostadas aren’t heated. A toddler could assemble these. They are like a terrible, lazy version of nachos and a questionable value at $1.65 each.
I enjoyed the sandwich more.
The Everything Grinder was huge enough to provide a me-sized person multiple meals. It was filled with cheap-tasting and slimy ham, salami and turkey deli meats, luke-warm taco meat, shredded cheese, shredded iceburg lettuce, mild red sauce, and a white sauce that reminded me of ranch. I microwaved it for exactly 20-seconds for the most authentic experience. All in all, it wasn’t bad. I dunked each bite into a copious amount of the hot sauce whose heat level was somewhere between Frank’s and Tabasco. In fact, I consumed about three ounces of the sauce while eating only half the sandwich.
The most questionable part of the sandwich was the taco meat. While I liked its flavor, its temperature was neither hot nor cold upon examining it before microwaving. Having recently passed my ServSafe food handling certification, I wondered at what temperature this substance was held (cold food must be kept at 41℉ or below and hot food at 135℉ or above). For the record, I felt completely fine after eating the food.
I find the Everything Grinder’s tastiness increases with a cold, Mexican beer.
Red Pepper still remains an enigma to me. I suppose it’s like any other type of comfort food. People just like what they like. Some foods feel nostalgic if they are associated with positive experiences or memories, while others connect to one’s perception of home. I did not grow up on The Red Pepper’s food, nor does it correspond with any of my memories. So, my first taste of the grinder was pleasant enough, but didn’t strike me as anything I would go out of my way for, while the cheese tostadas struck me as downright heinous.
That being said, I seek out some of my favorite comfort foods even though they aren’t the best versions of themselves. I love many of these foods for their imperfections, such the Chinese take-out of my childhood. So, while I can’t understand why the restaurant’s line is constantly out the door, I kind of can.
To each, his or her own.