Latin flavor

Pepito’s brings South American street food to the shuk.

The choripan sandwich – Argentinean chorizo on bread with vegetables and homemade sauces (photo credit: RAN EILUZ)
The choripan sandwich – Argentinean chorizo on bread with vegetables and homemade sauces
(photo credit: RAN EILUZ)
Tucked inside the closed shuk amid the bustling bars, restaurants, shops and vendors that make up Mahaneh Yehuda, you’ll find the new kid on the block, Pepito’s.
Co-owners Andres Gonzalez, Anat Ben- Joya and Silvia Liplewski are bringing the Latin flavors they know and love to Jerusalem and hoping that Jerusalemites will be open to their version of South American street food.
All three partners came from South America, emigrating to Israel for various reasons. Ben-Joya came from Venezuela two years ago to learn about Judaism at a women’s seminary; Gonzalez came with his brother from Colombia nine years ago for religious reasons; and Liplewski came from Venezuela at around the same time after being on a one-year program for Jewish youth leaders and falling in love with Israel.
Liplewski received her MBA from Bar-Ilan University last March. Afterwards, she met Ben-Joya and Gonzalez in Jerusalem at a theater group she started for South American immigrants. It was then that she found out Gonzalez was a professional chef.
“He has worked in many restaurants here and he cooks amazingly,” Liplewski says of the man who is now both her business partner and fiancé.
“Anat also has a cooking background, and she brought her tastes to the project,” she continues. “I always wanted to open my own place, but it was finally the right time. The three of us think that if you do something and it’s your own and you love it and work hard for it, then b’ezrat Hashem [God willing], it will be a success.”
AFTER A year of planning and talking about it, they decided to make the dream a reality. They began last summer by selling South American food on Fridays at the farmers’ market in the First Station. The endeavor proved to be very successful, and when the market closed, they decided that they wanted to open up a real business.
“We started looking for places, and the shuk seemed like a good choice,” Liplewski explains. “The shuk is always changing; when you see that something is for rent, you have to grab it. We found a nice place in a good location, thank God. Now we’re here.”
The Pepito’s team had concerns about opening up a Latin street food place in the heart of the Holy City, where hummus, falafel and Middle Eastern meat places abound. When restaurants offer something different, it’s usually a type of food that Israelis are more familiar with, like fish or pasta.
“We know for a fact that the Jerusalem public is very conservative when it comes to eating,” Liplewski says. “They prefer to go to places where they know exactly what they’re getting. We took that as a challenge. Whereas Mexican is known all around the world, Latin street food is not. We tried to do something that no one else has done, and do the kosher version of it.”
There is no question that serving Latin street-food sandwiches, which most Israelis have never heard of or tried before, is a risk. But the team was up to the challenge. The restaurant has been open for about two months now, and thus far the response has been nothing but positive.
The concept was inspired entirely by South America, where every country has a signature sandwich. The Pepito’s version is a Venezuelan sandwich packed with meat, a fried egg, potato chips and lots of sauces. Liplewski, Ben-Joya and Gonzalez adapted the traditional version to make it kosher, and turned it into the most popular sandwich on their menu, La Bomba.
“After we created our own Pepito’s [sandwich], we decided to go and do more research,” Liplewski says. “We wanted to go a bit farther and find more interesting inspirations. We ended up finding the Cubanito. We use kosher meat, including goose pastrami, with pickles and mustard.
Instead of the garlic butter used in the original, we use garlic mayo. I think it’s even better than the real one!”
Then they went farther south, she says, to Argentina, where there’s “a sandwich that’s like a hotdog, but it’s made with chorizo sausage. Basically, all of the sandwiches are our creations taken from Latin street food, but with a twist.”
Pepito’s currently offers eight very reasonably priced meat sandwiches, as well as a vegetarian version of La Bomba. There are plans to expand.
“We’re only just starting,” Liplewski goes on. “Part of our business strategy was not to do something too different. This is not Tel Aviv and we have to be honest about that. First, we have the sandwiches, but we plan on developing more as time goes on.”
The trio is excited about the prospect of adding arepas, the popular Cuban and Venezuelan dish comprised of stuffed cornmeal patties. If Pepito’s continues as it has for the past two months, the Mahaneh Yehuda crowd is in for a variety of new tastes and flavors representing the diversity of the South American immigrants who now call Jerusalem home.
“The shuk is not a mall and it’s not Ben-Yehuda Street. It’s a huge micro-community,” Liplewski asserts.
“When you start a business here, you feel like you’re in someone else’s house.
All of a sudden, you get there, you knock on the door, you pick a room and start to sleep there. That’s the feeling,” she explains. “Of course, in the beginning, not everyone was so friendly or open to the idea of us being here,” she goes on. “But on the other hand, we’ve gotten a lot of support from customers and the community. We’ve had more people trying to help us than not. At the end of the day, we believe that if you are successful, then your neighbors will be, too.”
IT’S NO secret that opening a business anywhere, especially a restaurant, can be a thankless task. That difficulty is exacerbated for new immigrants. Pepito’s has received support from Jerusalem’s South American community, although it is not as numerous as those of the Anglos or French. Despite this, good food creates a buzz, and word gets around quickly.
“We have happy customers, even though they still sometimes ask us why we don’t offer hummus or olives on the side,” Gonzalez says with a laugh.
In the meantime, Pepito’s is continuing to put out quality Latin street food in the heart of Jerusalem.