Food & Drink

Their Casa Is Our Casa

Inside Baltimore's oldest and best-loved Spanish restaurant.

There is a pig in Tio Pepe’s kitchen and it smells great. The pig has been gutted, slit belly to throat so that it can lie flat in the roasting pan. Its teeth are bared, its ears singed black and crispy at the tips. Its skin has reached a deep shade of bronze, but it is the meat inside that is the real treat—the rich odor of roast pork wafts up from the pan, which is coated in a layer of drippings mixed with water that will later be reduced into a sauce.

“Once a day, every day, we do the whole pig,” says Don Emilio, as the staff at this long-lived Spanish restaurant sometimes call its chef and co-owner. His real name is Emiliano Sanz, and he is the cousin of original chef/owner Pedro Sanz. He has been working at the restaurant for 37 years now, and took over the kitchen after Pedro Sanz’s death in 1989. At the time, some customers held their breath, wondering if Tio’s could withstand the loss of its most visible and beloved icon, wondering if the place would change irreparably.

They needn’t have worried. Tucked into its improbable basement location for almost 40 years now, Tio Pepe remains utterly intact, from snout to tail.

When the magazine staff first began planning this year’s Food Issue, we thought of profiling a Baltimore landmark restaurant, one that’s lodged in the city’s consciousness as part of its history and culture. Tio Pepe sprang instantly to mind. For one thing, it’s about the only place left in that category. Haussner’s, Marconi’s, The Chesapeake, Peerce’s—one by one, each has closed. The Prime Rib, which is often mentioned in the same sentence with Tio’s in local conversations about old-school restaurants, is part of a chain (albeit a very small, fairly local one) and is actually younger than Tio Pepe, which opened in 1968.

Also, people are still going to Tio’s—if you want reservations for prime hours on a Saturday night, you had better call two weeks ahead of time. Given its status as the last of Baltimore’s culinary old guard, and our own hundred-year anniversary, Tio Pepe’s seemed like a natural choice for the issue.

Plus ça change: As part of that anniversary, the staff had been looking through back issues of the magazine, searching for scrapbook-worthy articles. And as I flipped through the 1985 issues, there it was: “A Day in the Life of Tio Pepe.”

The article is something of a relic, the writing unrepentantly gushy and without any effort to maintain objectivity. Pedro Sanz, who was still in charge of the kitchen then, is characterized as some sort of culinary saint, with toque in place of halo. At one point, his eyes are actually described as twinkling.

Much of the article, however, is as accurate today as it was 22 years ago. The kitchen layout remains the same: a narrow corridor separating cold-side prep (where salads and desserts are assembled) from the hot side, which holds the Vulcan stoves, the ovens, and the gigantic steamer used to cook some 100 pounds of green beans each night. Many of the employees mentioned in the article are still working the same positions. Suckling pig is still a featured item on the menu.

But other facts have changed. In 1985, Tio Pepe was ranked Number One in our list of Best Restaurants—a position it had held since 1980, when we began printing such a feature. “The dynasty continues,” the editors wrote. “De Tio Pepe, non est disputandum.”

In 2005, that dynasty collapsed: That was the first year Tio Pepe did not appear in Best Restaurants. Our critic found serious problems with the service, and the food seemed unimaginative compared to what was being served at newer restaurants around town.

It wasn’t an easy decision for us to make. I know this because, for the past seven years, I have been the editor in charge of Best Restaurants. I remember the debate. I didn’t grow up in Baltimore; to me, Tio Pepe is just one restaurant among many. But I knew its reputation, and knew it would ruffle feathers.

Ruffled feathers doesn’t describe it; think more Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Letters poured in, chastising us for taking Baltimore’s most beloved restaurant off the list. And then there were the phone calls—angry, angry phone calls. Some people told me flat-out I should be fired; others stuck with pointedly asking me where I was from. Subscriptions were cancelled.

No restaurant has provoked such fury from our readers. No restaurant has been such a thorn in my side.

And now I am standing in its kitchen.

BUT WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE RESTAURANT around 10 a.m. on a late-summer Friday, Emiliano Sanz is all smiles as he shows off that suckling pig. The mood here is industrious but relaxed; lunch is still a couple of hours away, and these days, it’s not much of an ordeal, anyway. Twenty years ago, when that last article was written, Tio’s was mobbed by its Friday lunch crowd; chefs made a massive platter of seafood salad at the beginning of the shift, to be served from a cart, and it would be decimated by 2 p.m. Nowadays, though, there are only a handful of tables at lunch—most of them on the large side, celebrations of some sort. If you want seafood salad, it will be made to order in the kitchen.

A sous chef—there are three or four working right now—diligently spoons a dark golden sauce through a metal strainer into a cylindrical container, where it will join 21 others in a steam tray on the counter. The sauces and soups form a spectrum of browns, from the warm ochre of this bisque sauce to the deep purply brown of the black-bean soup and the bright russet of the tomato sauce. There is truffle sauce and lemon sauce, onion soup and green sauce. At night, another nine sauces will squeeze into the steam bath as well: creamy champagne sauce, rich veal demiglaze.

Emiliano is busy chopping whole chickens into sections; a sous chef does the same with a box of beef tenderloins. In an era of portion control and pre-cut ingredients, Tio’s keeps it old school. “Maybe I’m too old-fashioned,” admits Emiliano, a stocky, animated man whose thinning gray hair is concealed by a mesh chef’s toque. “I just think it’s better to cut things yourself.”

Their knives slice through as if bone and meat were warm butter. The one the man slicing tenderloins wields is roughly the length of my forearm. They are sent out to be sharpened professionally every other week, but Emiliano says staff has to hand-sharpen them after about three days of use. The restaurant will go through approximately two cases of beef tenderloin tonight, says Emiliano; each case holds some 80 to 85 pounds of beef.

At 10:55, the first man in a red blazer comes in. These are the headwaiters. Tio Pepe’s service has three tiers: Headwaiters who take orders and answer customer questions, runners (blue blazers) who bring food from the kitchen to the table, and bussers (gold blazers) who clear plates and refill water. Servers work in teams of three, with one of each.

The wait staff starts up on prep work. One man carefully arranges chrysanthemums and carnations in tiny vases, brushing open the petals to make the blooms look fuller. Another whittles candles to fit into a brass light fixture. Two headwaiters chop yellow apples and oranges for the sangria. They’ve already set up the liquids they’ll need: 12 three-liter boxes of red wine, seven boxes of white, five large bottles of brandy, 16 of triple sec.

“That’ll all be gone at the end of the night,” says one waiter, gesturing with his knife.

The waiter is named Michael Link and he jokes that, with 20 years in the job, “I’m the new kid.” I ask him what’s changed at Tio’s over the years. He shrugs, still chopping fruit. “The prices have gone up with inflation,” he says. “That’s about it.”

Link is notable as one of the very few—perhaps the only—staff members for whom Spanish is not his native language. Other members of the staff come from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic . . . and, of course, Spain.

This is the origin of Tio Pepe: Long ago, in the bleak years that followed the Spanish Civil War, there was a small town outside of Madrid called Cascajares, where unemployment and poverty had reached crushing proportions, just as they had everywhere else in Spain’s rural countryside. And so the young men of the village began moving to the city, just as young men were doing throughout the country. The first Cascajaran to do so wound up finding work in a restaurant—he wasn’t a chef by trade, but a job was a job. And he invited a cousin to come work with him. And that cousin invited another cousin. And so on. Eventually, this town of some 500 inhabitants came to lay claim to 50 or 60 chefs. (Today, many of them gather each August for a weekend-long festival.) One of those chefs was Pedro Sanz, who went to work with relatives at a Madrid restaurant when he was 13; he, in turn, invited Emiliano to work with him when Emiliano turned that same age. Then Pedro visited New York for the 1964 World’s Fair and decided to stay in the United States. The elder Sanz worked for a while at the now-defunct Peter Lucas restaurant in Roland Park, where people quickly began telling each other about the talented Spaniards working in the kitchen. When Pedro decided to open his own place in a subterranean spot on Franklin Street, his new fans followed him. And so, after a few years, did Emiliano.

The man who tells me this whole story is Miguel Sanz, Pedro’s nephew. (He and Emiliano are related, but distantly—Sanz is evidently a common last name in Cascajares.) Miguel is a quiet, gracious man who frequently hesitates before speaking, as if trying to find the most carefully worded response he can to any question. He was finishing up a master’s degree in engineering at Johns Hopkins when his uncle Pedro passed away; he wound up never using that degree, instead taking over as co-owner and general manager of the restaurant. “Things happen,” he says with a slight smile.

Miguel takes me on a tour of the restaurant. A series of expansions have created a warren of small interconnecting rooms whose individual sizes mask the restaurant’s true scale. The Spanish art on the walls is the same that hung there when the place first opened. Those walls themselves are spotlessly white; Miguel says they repaint a room each week, rotating through all of them. I gaze at the wall before us, the lines of its individual stones softened to blurry suggestions; there must be 40 coats of paint on there, I comment. “Oh, more than that,” says Miguel, sounding surprised that I would guess so low.

After the tour, we stand at the small, dark bar by the front door, waiting for the lunch crowd, such as it is. “You have to compare it to before they opened Harborplace,” says Miguel. “It’s probably half of what it was then. Harborplace was a killer for our lunch business here.”

Indeed, Tio Pepe has never depended on foot traffic; it is a destination restaurant. But now that the downtown crowd can walk to plenty of restaurants, there’s no need for them to drive up to Franklin Street, much less scour the streets for parking.

As if to confirm that, a group of a half-dozen women in their sixties come in, apologizing to the one member of their party who’s been waiting for them. “We were here at 12, but we had a hard time parking,” one explains.

“I got here early, so I went shopping at the Women’s Exchange,” says another.

“What’s the Women’s Exchange?” asks a third woman, and the gasps that follow her question are the gasps that Baltimore tends to emit whenever one of its institutions is not properly recognized: shocked, indignant, even mildly insulted.

Back in the kitchen, Don Emilio is gaily hacking the roast pig into entrée-sized portions with a gigantic cleaver. He and I chat about adapting Spanish cuisine for local ingredients, and about that out-of-towner’s rite of passage: our first softshell crabs. “I never saw till I came to Baltimore,” he tells me, but we both agree that the spider-shaped delicacies are surprisingly good.

Don Emilio is irrepressible. He wants me to sample or at least witness everything in his kitchen. Before long I am sniffing his tin of imported saffron. (A one-ounce tin lasts him a week, which may not seem like much until you realize that saffron easily goes for $1,000 a pound.) But it is hot and I am worried that I am distracting him from his duties, so I wander back to the bar, where maitre d’ Pedro Gutierrez is minding the door. Gutierrez, who is from Madrid, has worked here for 15 years; the other maitre d’, Francisco “Paco” Lobos, has been here since the place opened. He is currently on vacation with a regular customer; they are attending the annual chefs’ festival in Cascajares.

I ask Gutierrez if customers try to speak Spanish with him. “Yes,” he says. “Some people like to say things in Spanish. You know, they may only know one or two things, but they’ll say, ‘Hola.'”

Not two minutes later, a group of five men in their 60’s to 80’s walk in. “Hola,” says the first to Gutierrez, smiling.

“Como está?” asks the next.

The men file past and sit at a round table in one of the larger dining rooms. There is an empty chair, so I ask if I can sit and ask them a few questions. The Boys (“no, no—the Friday Boys,” one of them quickly amends) have been coming here for Friday lunch since 1976, back when they all worked in the same law firm. One is now a retired judge; a few of them still practice law, but they all make a point of coming here for their weekly lunch. They are only too happy to tell me stories of Tio Pepe past: the nights when the waiters would set Irish coffees on the floor in a line and set the whiskey in them on fire; the times Pedro Sanz would make them entirely new dishes, simply because they’d already eaten everything on the written menu; the time one of them was given three months to live, and after a miraculously successful surgery, held his survival party in one of the restaurant’s back rooms.

They order cold artichokes and fried potato puffs, gazpacho soup and fried shrimp. And what will I have? Originally I had not planned to eat anything—ethically speaking, it’s not good to accept gifts from story subjects. But I’m hungry, and the whole restaurant smells so potently of garlic, that I rationalize a bowl of gazpacho.

“Here, you have to try these,” says one of the Friday Boys, spooning a few fried potato puffs onto my plate. They aren’t on the menu, but they are nevertheless immensely popular. It’s easy to see why: crispy and feathery, these hollow pillows of sliced potato manage to taste both fried and light at the same time. The garlicky gazpacho, when it comes, is refreshingly cool, the perfect soup for a hot summer day.

The Friday Boys are reminiscing about what Baltimore’s dining scene was like when Tio Pepe first opened. “There weren’t any ethnic restaurants—not many, anyway,” says the retired judge. “There were some Greek places in Greektown, and German food in Highlandtown, but people didn’t usually travel to them.”

“There were a few good restaurants,” says another. “Marconi’s and The Chesapeake and Haussner’s.”

I ask why Tio Pepe is still in business when those places aren’t.

“The food is good,” says one.

“Well, the food was good at the other places, too,” argues another. The debate is by turns lawyerly and smart-alecky. Then the entrées show up.

Michael Link, who happens to be our server, tells me, “Chef Emilio asked you be sent this with his compliments.” It is the largest softshell crab I have ever seen, lightly battered and coated in sliced almonds, with a ramekin of rich lemon-garlic sauce for dipping. I take a bite. So much for journalistic integrity.

Minutes later, as I am happily chomping on what easily has to be a day’s worth of caloric intake, a well-dressed woman comes up behind me. Her whisper in my ear is so intense, I instinctively cringe: “I don’t care what anyone says, this is one of Baltimore’s best restaurants, and has been for 30 years,” she tells me, her eyes drilling into mine. I gulp and nod.

Meanwhile, the eldest of the Friday Boys—dapper in his pale suit and red-and-yellow bow-tie—has left the table to chat with two African-American gentlemen at a corner table. He brings them back to say hello: One is Dr. Levi Watkins, the first African-American chief resident of cardiac surgery at Hopkins. The other is Homer Favor, a former director of Morgan State University.

“He didn’t want to come today,” says Dr. Watkins, nodding at Favor. “But I told him, ‘The Judges will be looking for us.'”

Dr. Watkins and Favor tell me about some of the famous guests they have brought to Tio Pepe: Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Rosa Parks. “I saw [Yankees superstar] Derek Jeter here,” he mentions.

“In his rookie season,” agrees a Friday Boy.

“With his parents,” finishes another.

This is about the time when Link shows up with complimentary plates of Tio Pepe’s famous pine nut roll, a dish which had not impressed me during my only other meal at the restaurant, when I’d been checking it out for Best Restaurants—on that anonymous visit, it had been stale and dry. This time, though, it is fresh and delicate, the creamy custard and moist sponge cake creating one soft, comforting indulgence—it’s no almond beignet with lavender ice cream (to cite one of my favorite desserts that I’ve had in this town), but you’d be thrilled if your grandmother made some for you. The Friday Boys diligently spoon freshly whipped sweet cream on top of my slice. “They have the best whipped cream here,” says one. I cannot argue with him.

Lunch is over—both at my table and in the restaurant. Everyone takes a small break, Don Emilio sitting down for some sautéed chicken with a few other staffers.

THINGS DON’T PICK UP AGAIN until after 5. When I go back to the kitchen, Don Emilio wants to show me his lobsters—big, blue-shelled beauties that are destined to be boiled with celery, bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns, then topped with shrimp, crabmeat, and champagne sauce. The result is Lobster Emiliano (though I later hear customers call it “Three Two One,” in honor of its shellfish trifecta), a dish that, once again, isn’t on the menu but is nevertheless ordered constantly. Don Emilio estimates that 30 percent of his orders can be off the menu.

Speaking of which, he wants me to try his potato puffs. I try to protest, but he is already in action. Here is the secret: Each slice of potato must be fried once in hot oil, then fried again in even hotter oil, and then flash-fried for about five seconds right before being served. Don Emilio does not use a thermometer to gauge the oil’s heat: “After this many years, you know.”

We chat a bit more about the supremacy of Spanish ham over all other varieties, about whether or not Tio Pepe will serve the highly prized Ibérico ham when it starts getting imported into this country next year (probably not—at $50 to $150 a pound, it will probably be too expensive for customers here), about his commute from his home in Perry Hall.

Jose Guzman, the mustachioed evening sous chef, calls out orders from handwritten checks in his sonorous voice: “Gambas para dos, paella, y Langosto Emiliano!”

“You see?” says Don Emilio happily. “It’s not on the menu, but they order all the time!”

By the time you read this, this scene will be a thing of the past; after many years of prodding, Tio Pepe is switching to a computerized ordering system.

It’s interesting to watch the orders. More than any other restaurant whose kitchen I’ve observed, Tio Pepe gets entire tables ordering the same thing: three orders of shrimp with garlic, three of chicken with crab, three of snails. Blue-jacketed runners lift trays with six, seven, eight heavy dishes stacked on top. You can see them wince with the effort. I wonder if this is why, with the exception of one lunchtime bartender, the entire staff is male.

Miguel Sanz, who has by now slipped into a suit jacket, offers another reason. “We do get women applying—and we’ve had women work in the kitchen before, or as bartenders—but they apply to be waiters,” he says, meaning headwaiters. “In all the time I’ve been working here, I think maybe three waiters have retired—one moved back to Spain, one retired, and . . . oh, I guess maybe two. If we do get an opening, we promote from within.” Women, he says, aren’t interested in a place where they’d have to wait a decade to get a shot at the best-paying positions.

Meanwhile, the house is filling up. By far the most common table type seems to be parents with their grown children. At one such grouping, diners pass around a plate of potato puffs. “We’ve been coming here since we moved to Baltimore—what, 14 years ago?” says a vivacious twentysomething blonde in a tasteful black-and-white blazer. Her parents agree. Her mother, elegantly dressed in black with a classic pearl choker, calls it “a special restaurant for a special occasion.”

The blonde daughter calls “the puffy fries” a favorite dish. “I think you told us about the puffy fries,” she says to her brother-in-law, a native Baltimorean.

“I think my grandparents first got me started on the puffy fries,” he says.

A hand-painted pitcher of sangria sits on almost every table. I ask Miguel if they ever go missing or get broken. “Both,” he says, smiling. “Sometimes, you have to tell a party who’s had a little too much sangria, ‘Can you please give us the pitcher?'”

Sangria breeds laughter, and the restaurant is now boomingly loud. A customer shows Pedro Gutierrez a photo of the 200-pound halibut his sister caught on a recent trip to Alaska; soon after, an older man asks the maitre d’ if he’s seen a man named Solomon. Gutierrez considers for a moment. “Not recently,” he says.

I slip back into the kitchen, which is now full of energy and the crash of pans onto burners. Suddenly, Don Emilio is beside me. “Here is a little tapa,” he says with a smile, handing me a plate of Spanish ham.

Back at the bar, the bartender is pouring drinks. Margaritas are popular, as are Coronas with lime. “I guess people see the Spanish, and get confused,” says a waiter with a grin.

I ask Miguel about Tio Pepe’s future. He mentions the restaurant’s 40th anniversary, coming in 2008. “I guess we’ll have to do something,” he says casually.

But beyond that? He’s already told me he doubts either of his children will want to take the place over. “To tell the truth, I haven’t even sat myself down to think about it,” he says. “I guess I’d like to see if we can make it to the 50th birthday. Past that, God will decide.”

But then his mouth quirks in that faint smile of his, and he adds, “Remember, we come from a place where there’s a restaurant in Madrid that’s been around since the 17th century.”

“I WASN’T ALLOWED HERE till I could respect it—when I was 16, 17,” says Marc Hassan, who is here with his brother and parents tonight. His parents have retired to Florida, but make a point of coming here every time they visit their old hometown.

I am coming to respect Tio Pepe myself. The dining rooms, which once struck me as dowdy and claustrophobic, now seem cozy and charmingly Old World. I’m beginning to understand the comfort of knowing you’ll be getting the exact same dish your grandparents used to order when you were a child. Even the haughty waiters seem to have softened—after all, if I’d been doing a job for 30 years, I’d probably stop feeling the need to prove myself to every fresh face who came by. Plus, it’s obvious that the restaurant’s regulars feel pampered.

But, much as it may pain me to say so—and, as the night wears on and the Tio’s stories pile up on each other with the dense sweetness of freshly whipped cream, the pain becomes almost physical—there are certain facts that cannot be denied. The food is heavy and old-fashioned. The staff is all-male. That velvet matador cape has faded from black to gray. And (Sanzes forgive me, but it’s true) at least one of the waiters has very obviously notdry-cleaned his jacket for a very, very long time. I guess what I am trying to say is: The past is a lot of fun to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

As the restaurant’s night winds to a close around 10:30, I head back to the kitchen, where, sure enough, Don Emilio has made me a to-go package with enough paella and gambas al ajillo to feed a family of four. The man has been here since 7:30 a.m.; he works double shifts like this at least four times a week; he is still wearing his chef’s toque. I ask him if he’s ever thought of moving back to Spain. “No, I don’t think so,” he says. “Everything in my life is here.”

As for the future of Tio Pepe, his answer is cryptically elliptical. “I’m 61,” he says. “I’ve trained all these guys. They know very good how to do things here.”

Then he turns to load my case of food into my arms. “This will be very good, you can heat it up,” he says, smiling at me.

I am a serious, professional journalist, so I will not tell you that his eyes twinkled. My objectivity cannot be bought with a few thin slices of ham or a reef’s worth of shellfish. It cannot be bullied by a city’s protective love. I am not that easily swayed.

I think it is more accurate to say his eyes shone.