Open Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight. AE, CB, D, MC, NAC, V. Reservations. Prices: Main courses $3 to $10.95, average about $6. Appetizers $1.50 to $4.
Josephine is a beauty. She knows how to show a guy a good time. But I am a little worried that she's not smart enough to make it in this tough world.
Josephine, it seems, was the formal name of a bawdy Mexican cook of the Wild West after whom Pueblo Joe's is named. Cute, huh? You are informed of this on the menu, which doesn't tell you much else. It is one of those flashy menus that winks and nuges you with an elbow and makes jokes rather than describing the food. After much quizzing of waiters and waitresses, I think I have a good idea of how to translate the menu into familiar foods, and I don't mind telling you even if Joe meant to keep it a secret.
For appetizers, this being a somewhat Mexican restaurant, there are tortilla chips covered with cheese and peppers (nachos, $2.25); or beans and cheese with a few dabs of guacamole and green chiles and ground-up bacon (panchos, $2.95). They are nice to nibble, if mild. There is fried zucchini, served in a big basket and almost good except that not enough of the batter sticks to them. Cebolla al carbon is either unavailable or the waiter won't let you order it. Then there are cheese crisps and pico de galo and quesadilla, but my attention was diverted by pizza. I couldn't understand why a Mexican restaurant would serve pizza, so I ordered it. I still don't understand, unless they count on a lot of curious firsttimers.
The menu goes on to a couple of soups and salads, hamburgers and steak, but there are also some real Mexican main dishes that can be categorized mostly as stuffed peppers and stuffed tortillas. In the stuffed pepper department, the familiar chile rellenos ($2.95) is well made, its faintly hot green pepper packed with spiced shredded meat and fried in an egg batter. It also comes topped with a sauce of fresh pineapple and raisins, a nice idea but the sweetness overpowers the spiciness. Another stuffed pepper, chiles en nogada, is a kind of Betty Crocker adaptation of one of Mexico's great dishes. In this case the peppers are stuffed with meat, raisins, tomato and almonds, then topped with cream that has gone runny (though another day it looked firmed at the next table), with no sign of walnuts (nogada) that named the dish. Finally, pimentos rather than pomegranate seeds have been used to garnish it, so that crunch and burst of tart juice is missing from the balance. It is a pleasant enough concoction, but does not warrant the name or the $7.95. Nor does carne asada, at $10.95, more than faintly resemble the authentic version. This one is a well-pounded small steak, cooked crusty and rare and topped with a thin onion sauce. With it comes a cheese enchilada of equivalent character, lightly seasoned guacamole, bits of greenery and Pueblo Joe's finest accomplishment, refried beans of superlative buttery flavor and texture.
What Pueblo Joe knows about is beans. The refried beans by themselves or in a bean burrito ($5.50) show a desire to feed the Mexican soul. And the chili with beans ($3.25) has bite and aroma and a nice touch of raw scallion garnish. On the other hand, the tacos ($1.95 a la carte, $5.95 for two of them as a platter) are content with merely feeding the body, for they are mild fare. Enchiladas are $6.15 to $6.50, and unobjectionable. The most impressive main dish is chimichanga ($5.15), an enormous tube of deep-fried flour tortilla filled with cumin-scented shredded beef that is the house beef stuffing, and topped with strips of pale green, suave guacamole, sour cream and tomato-green pepper-onion sauce. The dish looks glamorous and, unlike its non-fried cousin, the burrito, provides a variety of tastes and textures to keep you interested in the entire giant portion.
So Joe understands a lot about the mystique of beauty. The dishes are colorful and bulging in the right places. And, just as clothes may make the woman, Pueblo Joe's makes Washington's best-dressed restaurant list. The entrance leads past a witty bar with neon signs ("quick divorce") and a shop filled with pinatas and pierced tin fancies. The main dining room is tiled in terra cotta, walled with green fabric and topped with a mirrored ceiling. A going-to-market size wooden cart is filled with plants, and the illumination is from full-size curved iron street lamps and stained-glass windows. At the inlaid wood tables, fabric banquettes or leathery basket-woven chairs make this indoor patio a comfortable perch. It seems a million miles from the Roy Rogers across the street. Pueblo Joe's looks like the kind of place you'd like to go while on vacation.
Like its fast-food neighbor, however, the service is wide-open western friendly, a kind of grown-up Roy Rogers "Howdy, pardner" friendliness. All that friendliness, however, takes time that on a crowded night may be needed to get the food on the table. Actually, the place is disorganized, but so sweetly disorganized that you are reluctant to place blame. Some dishes don't exist. Some dishes are wrong. Nobody knows what to do with a special request or a problem.
It is the age-old feminist problem. Given the choice between sweet-and-pretty or intelligent, any man in the mythical Wild West would choose Josephine, so Pueblo Joe's is a restaurant where they smile a lot as they blunder. The red rice is reheated so that it is studded with hard little bits. The tacos and enchiladas grin blandly for fear of offending. The there's the underbattered zucchini and too-sweet stuffed peppers. But the ultimate killing with kindness is the praline pie. It is prize pie, with a thin layer of brown sugar crunch on a custard, with a buttery crisp crust. Wonderful pie, except it is too sweet.
Pueblo Joe's is enamored of excess. Its drinks -- pina coladas, fruit margaritas and sangria -- are enormous, but their size puffs up normal amounts of alcohol with fruit and ice. They taste good in a church social way. Like much of the food, they are unobjectionable, likable. And Pueblo Joe's is a likable, G-rated restaurant which pretends an X-rating, a pretty face, a knockout. But not much to talk about afterwards.