José Alkon was hanging out in a Peruvian dive bar with his friend, chef Diego Munoz (who led Lima restaurant Astrid y Gastón when it was named best Latin American restaurant by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), when he decided to open something similar in Sydney.

“When we hang out [in Peru], we’re in taverns, in dingy punk-rock bars,” says Alkon, who moved to Sydney from Peru when he was eight, and visits regularly. “This is what we need in Sydney, because to me this is what Peru is. Not clean, polished, high-end dining, not the ‘ma pa’ community. For me, it’s the griminess, the history.”

Now, after a couple months of Covid-related delays, Alkon has opened Pepito’s – which he calls a “taberna”, an atmospheric diner where you both eat and drink – in a former seafood shop in Marrickville, plumb between Vietnamese diners Hello Auntie and Eat Fuh. Though it’s mainly inspired by Peruvian cuisine – and the country’s dive-bar culture Alkon enjoys so much – he’s calling it a Latin-American tapas joint, recognising that not all Sydneysiders are tuned into what Peruvian food is.

This is Alkon’s first eatery – he has a background in cinematography and is the founder of inner-west wine brand Marrick’s Wines. He says working behind the camera, which is all about creating an experience, helped him craft Pepito’s. (The restaurant is named after his father – it’s also the nickname Alkon gave his son, as they look so alike.)

Alkon enlisted design company Smith & Carmody (Cornersmith, Brickfields, Mecca) to turn his vision into reality. They’ve retained many of space’s original features, including the arch that now separates the dining room from the kitchen; the old tiles and brickwork; even the seafood sign out the front. Alkon spent hours scrubbing away the fish smell before they started working on space.

“I used to go to this shop all the time and jump over the water coming out of the hose every morning,” he says. “I walked around the back and [saw] graffiti that said ‘José’, so I knew that it was the place. I worked on the landlord for about a year [to let me rent it], back and forward.”

For Alkon, the two standout dishes on the menu are the leche de tigre especial and the ox heart anticuchos. The former is a mix of local seafood that’s marinated in lime juice, garlic, chilli and ginger, then topped with deep-fried calamari (“it's a gobsmacking citrus, chilli, umami bomb”). The latter is a Peruvian street-food classic, typically cooked in African neighbourhoods. The ox heart – which has been sourced from Whole Beast Butchery just up the road – is marinated in Peruvian chillies and spices, then cooked over charcoal.

When it comes to booze, Pepito’s is all about the pisco, a high-proof grape spirit that originated in Peru’s winemaking regions. Alkon wants to teach us that, just like wine, it’s all about the terroir, age and terrain.

“I’ve got piscos from Peru you can’t get anywhere else in Australia,” he says. “People didn’t know what mezcal is, now people go to Cantina Ok and they’ll spend 90 bucks on a shot of it. I’d love people to start getting an understanding of pisco, rather than just in cocktails. Peru isn’t just Machu Picchu, there’s a lot more cool stuff happening ... than what you see on postcards.”

While Pepito’s will serve pisco in cocktails, it’ll also serve it neat so diners can cultivate a taste for it. There’s also a bunch of other Peruvian spirits behind the bar, infused with plants and herbs from the Amazon. Alkon has worked with Marrickville wine bar Where’s Nick to put together the wine list, which focuses on small, sustainable producers making minimal-intervention drops. And there’s a rotating selection of local beers, including brews from Philter, Batch and Grifter.

For music, Alkon’s got a playlist he’s been working on for the past two years loaded with Spanish and Latin American punk, rock’n’roll and surf rock. Once his staff gets sick of it, though, he’ll branch out to funk and hip-hop from the region.

“To me it’s the energy of Peru I’m after,” he says. “Creating the atmosphere of being there. You get served an amazing plate of food, and you go, ‘Wow, this place is incredible’.”

Pepito’s is taking bookings starting Wednesday July 8.

Pepito’s
276 Illawarra Road, Marrickville
(02) 8668 5479

Hours
Wed to Sat 12pm–late
Sun 12pm–5pm

pepitos.com.au