“Let’s get one thing straight:
Mexican food takes a certain amount of time to cook.
If you don’t have the time, don’t cook it.
You can rush a Mexican meal, but you will pay in some way.
You can buy so-called Mexican food at too many restaurants
that say they cook Mexican food.
But the real food, the most savory food, is prepared with time and love and at home.
So, give up the illusion that you can throw Mexican food together.
Just understand that you are going to have to make and take the time.”
~Denise Chavez, A Taco Testimony
Despite the title of her book, A Taco Testimony isn’t a celebration of the folded, hand-held treasures of diverse deliciousness enveloping meats, vegetables and condiments. Nor is it a compilation of recipes detailing precisely how to create these homespun, rustic snacks as generations of families have enjoyed them. At a surface level, author Denise Chavez, a Las Cruces resident, writes about the familial and cultural experiences and dramas of growing up in Southern New Mexico. From an allegorical perspective, the underlying message of A Taco Testimony is that if you understand a people’s food, you can understand their culture and beliefs.
So, what can be gleaned about Mexican people from the foods they prepare and enjoy? If my Kim’s friend Luz Garcia is any indication, you’ll gain an appreciation for a hard-working, family oriented people who live life to its fullest. Despite a stressful eight-to-five job in a challenging judicial field, Luz gets up at five o’clock every morning to make tortillas for her family. She prepares all family meals and salsas from scratch and derives her greatest satisfaction from being surrounded by her husband and children for dinner every night. Dinner is a family event shared at the kitchen table, not in front of the television.
Every once in a while you’re fortunate enough to visit a Mexican restaurant in which it’s evident that significant time, care and love have been taken in the preparation of your meal. In fact, the only element missing from Denise Chavez’s Taco Testimony quote is “home” though with these restaurant gems, it’s easy to imagine a cook lovingly preparing such meals for his or her family as Luz Garcia does. One such restaurant is Panchito’s Restaurant & Bakery on Fourth Street.
Panchito’s is one of those restaurants you might drive by–perhaps on your way to another restaurant–without giving it a second thought. That is, if you notice it at all. Fortunately my loyal readers not only notice new and interesting restaurants, they try them out then tell me about them, often with great enthusiasm. Brecken Mallette (is there a cooler name in all of Albuquerque) was so enthusiastic after her first visit to Panchito’s, I immediately bumped several other restaurants on my list to visit it. She raved about the tacos al pastor, huarache, carne guisada burrito and salsa bar. Frankly she had me at tacos al pastor.
Made well tacos al pastor (which translates from Spanish to tacos in the style of the shepherd) are the quintessential Mexican taco, so good you’ll swear off ground beef tacos (which many self-respecting Mexicans would never eat). Tacos al pastor are a perfect combination of sweet and heat, savory and tangy. Panchito’s version of tacos al pastor showcases cubed pork which has been marinated in a red chile adobo seasoned with savory and sweet spices (we discerned cinnamon and cloves) and prepared with small pineapple cubes. A generous amount of the pork is nestled within two freshly made corn tortillas. It’s up to you as to whether you add onions and cilantro or maybe a salsa. These tacos need no amelioration. They’re superb as is.
If you do want to add a salsa to your tacos al pastor, you’ve got a lavish salsa bar replete with piquant, rich and savory options from which to choose. From pico de gallo to a mayonnaise-based guacamole, the salsa bar is one of the Duke City’s best. It also includes sliced limes, chopped onions, shakers of red pepper and so much more. The salsa bar is complimentary and includes a basketful of thin, low-in-salt chips. Most of the salsas are fairly light so they’re of the “dipping” variety, not of the “scooping” genre.
Panchito’s Restaurant & Bakery serves both Mexican and Colombian food though it doesn’t showcase some of the uniquely Colombian dishes you’ll find at El Pollo Real Colombiana, the Duke City’s only other Colombian restaurant. Instead, most of the menu will be familiar to diners who frequent the city’s varied Mexican eateries. Panchito’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which, in its entirety, lists only sixteen items. From the counter at which you place your order, you can peer into the kitchen to watch your meal being prepared to order. Better still, you can interact with the delightful family which owns and operates the restaurant. To say they aim to please is a vast understatement.
You might think that with only sixteen items on the menu it would be easy to decide what you’re having. Nothing could be further from the truth You’ll want to order everything, especially on weekends when menudo and pollo a la Barbacoa (chicken barbecue) are added to the menu. One thing for certain is you’ve got to order tacos al pastor, whether one or six. They’re terrific. You’ll also want to order one of the aguas de fruta (fruit waters). The agua de melon is both thirst-quenching and delicious. There are six items on the dessert menu though it’s unlikely you’ll have room for them.
In the 1960s, the American counterculture in its rejection of the “codifications of modernism” embraced the Mexican huarache, a traditional woven leather sandal. Having worn a pair or two back in the day, it always amuses me to see huaraches on a menu at a Mexican restaurant. The name fits. Huaraches are shaped roughly like a human foot, and just as a human foot needs covering, the thick corn tortilla which serves as the base for this delicious dish needs toppings. Indented by hand so that it has “borders” to hold its component ingredients, the Huarache Panchitos is topped with carne asada (grilled meat), beans, queso fresco, pico de gallo, nopales (cactus strips) and a savory-sour crema. Panchito’s version of the Huarache is among the very best you’ll ever have. Despite all the ingredients and their unique flavors, the pronounced corn flavor of the huarache still shines as do the fresh, perfectly prepared nopales.
There’s a pronounced corn flavor to the tamales, too. Both red and green tamales are available, but red and green, in this case, doesn’t mean New Mexico’s fabled red and green chiles. Worse, the red chile is made with cumin. The green chile is more akin to a salsa and while it doesn’t have much bite, it does have a nice flavor. Sprinkled generously atop the tamale is queso fresco which lends a mild, milky, fresh flavor with a sour-salty kick. Tamales, like other dishes on the menu, are available a la carte and in your desired quantity.
My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik enjoyed a torta, the flatbread sandwich the Huffington Post calls “the best (expletive deleted) sandwich ever.” At Panchitos, the torta is a crusty bolillo bread masterpiece which you can stuff with your choice of meat: carne asada, al pastor, barbecue pork, chicken or ham. It’s then topped with lettuce, onions, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, cream, chili (sic) or hash browns. This overstuffed beauty is one of those run-down-your-arms-good compositions you won’t mind wearing on your beard or clothing. Bill enjoyed his torta with al pastor.
Panchito’s is a thoroughly enjoyable little mom-and-pop restaurant which prepares delicious meals you’d be happy and proud to serve at home to people you love.
4501 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 November 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tacos Al Pastor, Huarache, Green Tamale, Agua Fresca de Melon, Salsa Bar