Do you hear something sizzling over at Micronesia Mall? That would be Pepper Lunch – the first franchise of its kind on Guam, the hybrid fast-food restaurant is already off to a smoking hot start since opening April 9.
Founded in Japan in 1994, Pepper Lunch's popularity quickly spread throughout the region, now boasting more than 200 locations in Japan and dozens of franchises in the Philippines, where Guam franchise co-owners Neil Espino and Renz Ramos, themselves Filipino, fell in love with the flavorful "do-it-yourself" dishes, as Espino describes them.
Located a few stores away from Ross Dress for Less in Micronesia Mall, you may have noticed the seemingly endless line (especially around lunchtime) during a recent shopping trip. While the line looks long, it moves quickly, and the short wait is well worth it when you dive into your peppery skillet a few minutes later.
Unlike most other fast-food restaurants, Pepper Lunch, a teppan-style concept, lets customers cook the food at their table. After placing their order, dishes are prepared in as little as one minute, Ramos says, since most of the cooking is done after it gets to the table.
Most dishes feature meat, rice and veggies, along with a healthy serving of freshly ground black pepper – Ramos notes that all the pepper they use is cracked fresh every morning – and is served up mostly uncooked in a piping-hot teppan skillet.
For those totally new to the experience, staff are happy to lend a hand, and helpful instructional videos play on flat-screen TVs spread across the bright wood-and-brick walls.
"So you mix it up – there's a special paste in the middle of the rice that you have to mix it up to get that even flavor. And you mix it up until the meat is cooked, as well. And then you can add the special sauce of your choice," Espino explains.
Beef Pepper Rice is one of the most popular dishes worldwide, Ramos says. The skillet comes with, of course, plenty of tasty beef and pepper, along with short-grain rice and corn.
But on Guam, Ramos says their curry dishes are king.
Pepper Lunch's Sizzling Curry dishes come with either hamburger, beef or chicken. Like the Beef Pepper Rice, each dish includes a hefty serving of rice, corn and pepper, but this time guests pour a rich, savory curry sauce over the mixture as they cook meat.
Ramos and Espino agree that Pepper Lunch is as much about the experience as it is about the food.
The restaurant's logo, a painter's palette, "depicts you being the artist, and your food or your plate is your canvas," Espino says.
It's a unique take on fast food that puts a welcome twist on a sometimes tired concept: while Pepper Lunch delivers their food as quickly as possible, requiring guests to cook their food after it comes to the table stretches the meal out and slows down time a bit, letting you savor every minute of even the shortest lunch break.
'Something that they need'
"Pepper lunch fulfills the need for Guam," Ramos says. "It takes us about a minute to 45 seconds to make one plate. So if you're in a rush and you want to eat something nice and good quality, you could eat here at Pepper Lunch."
Espino, who also runs Filipino restaurant Ben N' Yan's in Dededo, says they believe Pepper Lunch fills a void in the Guam food scene for tourists specifically, offering something familiar to both Japanese visitors and Guam residents who have grown to love the franchise during trips to the Philippines.
"We come from Guam and every time we go elsewhere, regardless of what country it is, if there's a McDonald's, we still go to it," Espino says. "So if there's something familiar then (tourists will) still go ahead and eat over there because it's something that their taste buds are familiar to. I don't see it as a bad thing. I see it that it complements something that they need as well, that brings them back home."