A culinary adventure in rustic Mexican eats
Reminiscent of Mexican taquerias
By Michael Sullivan 05/08/2014
Pancho’s Mexican Food
185 E. Santa Clara St.
Ever since I was a child, I have always been fascinated with Mexican food. Or, more so, anything I could stuff in a tortilla. Spaghetti, tuna, peanut butter and jelly, you name it, I’ve tried it. But I also look for inspiration. And while I love many of our local Mexican restaurants around the county, I’ve been unable to find a place that is a bit unique or unusual in its choices. I will say, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, but nothing has really stood out recently, until Pancho’s came along.
It was a Thursday night and a cover band was blaring the regular popular classic rock favorites on the patio. It was a bit too loud upon entry, but that particular building is set up in such a way that it is unavoidable. Regardless, servers came to seat us with haste in the redecorated dining room: Bright yellow walls and faux exposed brick with classic Spanish art work and tapestries. It was 90 degrees outside when we came to dine, and it was maybe 80 degrees in the dining room. There is no ventilation or ceiling fans, which doesn’t suit most Americans’ thirst for air conditioning and fresh air, but nevertheless, the atmosphere transported me back to Rosarito Beach in Baja — the air was stifling but the culture was palpable.
After reading several Yelp reviews, I had some pointers on what we should choose. First, margaritas. Of the three of us, only one truly enjoys tequila. She ordered the house margarita, which wasn’t like the norm. Her choice, on the rocks, was a rather refreshing experience, nothing like the typical syrupy sweet concoctions we are used to. It was a balanced blend of citrus and tequila, with chunks of pulp and wedges of lime and oranges. Also, one can order with salt or spicy salt around the rim. When asking my companion for a taste, she crouched over it like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and told me to get my own. … Well, that may be an exaggeration, but she certainly enjoyed it and wasn’t going to let me have more than a sip.
Next we chose our dinners, the coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail), the chili verde and the molcajete Azteca. There were pictures on the menu of the coctel and the Molcajete, but there were several other pictures we couldn’t quite figure which plates they went with — labels would be nice.
When the coctel came, the picture seemed to have been a bit deceiving. While the picture showed a goblet full of medium-size shrimp, we had this sort of treasure hunt experience, stirring the spoon around looking for these tender, perfectly cooked little prizes. Also, the coctel isn’t the typical “shrimp cocktail.” Instead of shrimp to be dipped in thick, spicy tomato sauce, our coctel was more of a cold soup of tomato and clam juice with fresh diced avocado and cucumbers and chopped cilantro — authentic Mexican style. My one companion wasn’t such a fan, but I liked the tangy acidity of the tomato juice and the salty ocean flavor of the clam juice. I would just hope for a few more shrimp, like the picture.
Shortly after the coctel, the chili verde and the molcajete Azteca arrived. The chili verde looked fairly standard, but the flavor was where it counted. The chunks of pork in tangy green tomatillo salsa were soft, tender, almost butterlike — cooked well and with care.
The molcajete Azteca, however, was something I had never seen before, though apparently there is at least one other place in the county that serves it. Served in a volcanic bowl that keeps the food hot: sliced avocado, queso blanco (possibly asadero), grilled nopalitos, green onion, jalapeño, Mexican sausage, carne asada and chicken breast atop a stew of marinated nopalitos in a warm Mexican salsa. It is served with warm corn or flour tortillas, Mexican rice, homemade refried beans, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo. The menu doesn’t say this could feed a whole family, but we figured that out shortly after it arrived. (I had leftovers for three days.) The ingredients say it all — it was the unusual, unique dish I had been looking for. The tender, yet just slightly rubbery texture of the nopalitos, the well-cooked carne asada, the thin, moist slices of chicken, the kick of the onion and the jalapeño and this surprise of warm nopalito salsa stew at the bottom, with the melting cheese — all of it was just fantastic. But this was my first time trying it, so I am no expert. I did persuade a friend to go with me the next day to try it again and he enjoyed it as much as I did.
While I am enthusiastic about the potential this place holds, another friend tried the tacos recently and wasn’t too impressed. Nevertheless, I will be back — after all, taste is mainly subjective and there are plenty of unique dishes to try on the menu, plus some old favorites. It’s worth a shot.