DINING: Take a tour of tucked-away eateries

Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an adage that every mother instills in her children, but it’s hard to follow when it comes to dining out. After all, outward appearances say a lot, right? Not so for these five area restaurants which, at first glance, appear out-of-place, questionable or otherwise unappealing. One taste of their traditional cooking could change your mind, however, if you’re willing to try.

El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant

11157 U.S. 41 E., 793-1211

Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Wednesdays

On the outside, El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant, in East Naples, looks like an old motel. It’s a conclusion that holds some truth; the building did once serve as one. Nowadays, customers will discover a land of authentic Mexican dishes, clean tables and a pleasant atmosphere. And the food’s good, too.

Despite the south-of-the-border attitude, you won’t need a translator to eat here. The menu has descriptions written in English and the wait staff does as well. They may not be fluent, but pointing is always a default way to communicate.

The restaurant serves the usual fare of tacos, burritos, tostados and fajitas with a selection of dinner entrees and some al a carte items for lunchtime eaters. Steak fajitas ($12) were the opton on a recent night out. The meat was jam-packed with flavor and super-tender, and the staff revealed that it is not marinated, but rather the vegetables with it add a lot of the flavor. (I wish I knew their secret.) They were excellent.

The chicken gorditas ($3.75) also caught my eye. Other options include beef, pork and some other more ethnic selections. The gordita was puffy, like a pita created with corn meal and water, then fried on a grill. The chicken was stuffed inside with cheese and pico de gallo.

Another alternative was the sopes ($2.75 and up), which were similar to the gorditas, yet were more like a tostada with the ingredients stacked on top of one another. The steak ones ($3.25) were excellent, with a soft shell that was slightly crispy and had oodles of sour cream and Mexican cheese.

El Tapatio is a great out-of-the-way Mexican restaurant.

Del-Mel Jamaican Restaurant

4961 Rattlesnake-Hammock Road (U.S. 41 East)

(239) 687-3434 or (239) 200-8968, naplesjamaicanrestaurant.com

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

If it weren’t for a man frantically waving a yellow-and-green sign inscribed with Del-Mel on U.S. 41 East, this small, unknown restaurant would blend into the background. His antics were so outlandish that I had to stop.

Inside was an exceptionally clean establishment decorated in Caribbean flair, with the sounds of Bob Marley echoing throughout. The owner, Pauline, greeted customers as if she were inviting them into her home. She recited the evening’s specials: jerk pork, curry chicken, curry goat and oxtail. I ordered the curry goat and jerk pork ($10/small or $12/large).

Accompanied with white rice or rice with peas, steamed cabbage and fried plantains, the meal was a large serving but certain meats — such as the chicken — include the bone and membrane. The jerk pork had a nice flavor and wasn’t overpowered by its seasoning. The flavor was also gentle enough for those who have easily shocked taste buds, since it wasn’t too spicy.

After some encouragement from Pauline, I tried the goat. The meat is different than beef, a bit earthy with a mild curry taste, which lingered. Next time, I’ll try chicken.

Although I wasn’t brave enough to try the oxtail, the dish is possibly the most popular. Several people stopped by for to-go orders while I was dining. A highlight: the restaurant serves my favorite Jamaican beverage, Ting; it is a grapefruit carbonated beverage and I just love it!

For a Jamaican fix, try Del-Mel.

Marcos Cuban Café

4110 Enterprise Ave., in Naples (in the industrial park), (239) 435-1961, marcoscubancafe.com

Hours: 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Those who work near the Industrial Park in Naples can attest that Marcos Cuban Café is a hidden treasure. The small establishment is located in an unassuming strip mall and looks like a converted storage unit on the outside. But an A-frame sign exposes the restaurant’s mission: It reads, “Best Cuban food in Naples.”

Although I can’t confirm it’s the best, it is a good one. Among a wide selection of Cuban delicacies, the menu’s staple, the Cuban sandwich ($5.99), stood out. It has the typical ingredients with pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. And it has super-soft bread with crust that was crispy but not so much that the roof of your mouth is sore from eating it. The meat was juicy and thin, but not paper-thin.

The pan con bistec (steak sandwich, $5.99), which consisted of palomilla (like a sirloin steak), lettuce, tomato, onion and potato sticks, was also yummy, if a little chewy.

Marcos also served fruit drinks, made of fresh ingredients. The fruit is chopped and put in a juicer with water and sugar, but diabetics beware: The sugar content is off the charts. I sampled the watermelon and fresh lemonade; the latter I liked best.

The restaurant serves breakfast and entrees as well as other specials. It is also very clean and on a recent Saturday, the restaurant was quiet, but weekdays are busier.

Stop by Marcos for a mouthwatering Cuban sandwich.

Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop and Deli

1833 Tamiami Trail North, Naples (across from Coastland Center Mall) , 643-6328, jimmypsbutchershop.com

Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 9a.m. to 4 p.m.

On a tour of tucked-away eateries, Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop and Deli is a gem. While I was familiar with the butcher shop, I had never eaten from their deli. Blown away is the best description of the impact.

The establishment is half deli, half butcher shop inside a tightly crammed space, with everything bottlenecked at the entrance. Squeeze inside and you’ll see a huge market with rows of meat cases displaying Kobe beef, Kurobuta pork, poultry and others as well as sauces, seasonings and marinades.

Since Kobe is their mainstay, I opted for the half-pound Kobe burger ($8) with onion rings and a drink (extra $2.50). The burger was gushing with juices and was cooked to perfection. But some of the finer details were overlooked: the bun was bordering on stale.

The restaurant’s shining star is the hot Italian with provolone ($7.99). Made of Kurobuta ham, capicola and salami on a sub roll and topped with typical extras like lettuce, mayo, onion and tomato as well as banana peppers (upon request), this sub was out of this world. I attribute it to the ham, which was not sugar-cured and void of any cloying sweet flavor. Instead it just zinged in my mouth, and instantly I wanted more.

The Reuben ($7.99) was excellent, too. And it’s huge, with 8 ounces of meat on the sandwich. The meat was tender and sliced thin.

Eat a sandwich and take home a steak from Jimmy P’s for a dinner twofer.

Pei Wei

2355 Vanderbilt Beach Road, in Naples, 596-5515, www.peiwei.com

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to

10 p.m.

On my last stop I sought out a Chinese restaurant, albeit a wallet-friendly one, and discovered Pei Wei, a casual and faster version of its parent company, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, with all dishes less than $10.

While it is may be the most well known of the restaurants on this tour, it is, certainly tucked away in the Collections at Vanderbilt. Unless you peruse the parking lot, it is doubtful you’ve stumbled upon it.

Pei Wei serves most of the same selections as P.F. Chang’s but at a more affordable price. The Pei Wei spicy ($7.95, chicken) is about $5 less than Chang’s spicy chicken ($13.50), but is just as tasty. A favorite Chinese dish, the Pei Wei spicy (with chicken) is a sweet, spicy sauce with scallions, garlic, snap peas and carrots. Ask for extra sauce.

The Thai dynamite ($7.95, chicken or $9, shrimp) was a shock to my palate with its intense flavors. With a lime squeezed into it, the flavors really meshed, but I still didn’t care for it.

The restaurant recently introduced small plates starting at $2, so patrons can take an inexpensive tasting tour themselves. The selections include chicken lettuce wraps, crispy potstickers, vegetable spring rolls, crab wontons and more.

Save some greenbacks and enjoy good Chinese at Pei Wei.

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