Mexican, the way it used to be [Restaurant Review]
The illusion at Pancho's is as potent as the margaritas.
by Richard Foss
They didn’t actually have restaurants when Spain and Mexico ruled California, but decorating an eatery to look like a hacienda still has a pretty long history. The first one on record was Casa Verdugo, a mansion in Glendale that opened in 1905. It became so popular that it had its own stop on the Red Car line. Visitors strolled the lush gardens and were entertained by singing guitarists and dancing children, followed by dinners of albondigas soup, chile rellenos, enchiladas, and other delights. The restaurant spawned an offshoot that lasted over 50 years, proof that romanticized Mexican dining had staying power.
The current incarnation of Pancho’s in Manhattan Beach has been around for 40 years, following the same strategy of a beautiful Mexican fantasy.
In 1987, Ab Lawrence took over a dilapidated restaurant that had been closed for three years and had previously served steaks and Chinese food. That restaurant had been founded as a barbecue joint in the 1930’s and called Pancho’s, after a horse. Though the architecture resembled mission style it had never focused on Mexican food. Lawrence’s decision to align the food with the décor was evidently a winning strategy, because Pancho’s has stayed in business while almost everything around it has changed.
The illusion here is still as potent as the margaritas, and has put Pancho’s on the short list of places that are a must for out of town visitors. You enter on the second floor next to a bustling and cluttered cantina, check in at the desk, and are ushered down a staircase to a cavernous room with wall murals, trees festooned with lights, and the inevitable bullfight posters. (There is a smaller and less spectacular room upstairs, but downstairs is where most of the tables are.) It’s an experience straight out of Olvera Street or San Diego’s Old Town, and an example of the restaurant as theatrical set.
Servers are at your elbow almost immediately bringing chips and salsa and offering drinks and starters. But it’s best to take time to study the menu before ordering. As you consider appetizers, keep in mind that the portions here are large even by the standard of Mexican restaurants. Unless there’s something you always wanted to try on the appetizer list, you probably don’t really need it.
The menu includes the standard taco and enchilada combinations and burritos, but also their version of some Mexican regional dishes and a few items created by longtime chef Ramon Hurtado. Some of these like tinga Poblana and birria are rare in the South Bay, and it’s a credit to the owner and chef that they’re offered.
On a recent evening, we decided to order three of the more interesting items: a burrito del mar, chicken mole poblano, and chicken with salsa pipian made from pumpkin seeds. Knowing the portions are hefty, we started by sharing a bowl of albondigas soup, which we consumed alongside mezcal and “Naughty Maggie” margaritas. There are apparently at least two drinks called the Naughty Maggie, one a strawberry margarita and the other this standard but strong version with a Grand Marnier float. It’s about two bucks more than the standard marg and worth the upcharge, because the liqueur adds a dimension of flavor as well as a little extra kick.
As for the soup, it hit all the marks for albondigas with a flavorful broth, chunks of potato, celery, and carrot, and meatballs that had a very light texture, thanks to being boiled. The broth was a bit less concentrated than you might get in East LA, but that could be a stylistic choice. If you’re deciding between soup and a salad I recommend the soup.
As we snacked on chips and a surprisingly zingy salsa we watched the first of three birthday celebrations of the evening. A server came out with a piece of cake whose lit candle was concealed by a sombrero and plopped the hat on the birthday person’s head and served the cake as other servers sang melodiously. Hilarity and many cellphone photos ensued. It’s a measure of the popularity of this place with families that a similar ritual will happen multiple times any evening you’re there. I don’t know whether servers are tested on their singing voices when they apply, but they sounded pretty good.
The mains arrived fairly quickly and were as bountiful as expected, the proteins in a lake of sauce and accompanied by plenty of rice and either refried or black beans. The only odd thing was that on both plates that involved beans the cotija cheese was dusted very sparingly, and since I like cheese with my beans I noticed this.
Thankfully the burrito del mar, which was filled with crab, shrimp, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and rice, didn’t skimp on the seafood. There was plenty of it and the crab had flavor rather than just adding texture. The green tomatillo sauce that topped the burrito was on the mild side but had enough heat to be interesting, and it was a successful item overall.
I was interested in trying the chicken pipian because it’s one of the most interesting Mexican sauces, based on a mix of peanut and pumpkin seeds with cumin, garlic, and other herbs. A friend of mine who was born in India said that mole sauce and pipian were what happened when Mexicans tried to invent curry, and he’s on target, since it has a similar thick, rich flavor. The version here is timid with the chillies and cumin compared to the ones I’ve tried in Mexican neighborhoods, but the formula of nuttiness, green herbs, and spice is intact.
The mole Poblano was slightly less effective than the pipian because poblano sauce is usually very thick and has a smoldering heat balanced with chocolate, and they had backed off on the chillies and garlic that balance the richness. The traditional topping of toasted sesame seeds was missing too, and those are more than a garnish because they add little bursts of flavor. It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t as impressive as other items.
One thing to note is that the chicken dishes here are made with skinless and boneless breast, which means the meat is less rich than in traditional preparations. Many people probably prefer it that way for health or aesthetic reasons, but in some recipes the fat from the meat melts in and becomes a component of the sauce. This was evident in the the mole Poblano, in which I found the chicken to be a bit dry. The nuts in the pipian sauce added a certain amount of richness to make up for the lack of fat as did the chocolate in the poblano, but the change is noticeable to those who are used to the traditional version. South Bay diners probably prefer the lower calorie count and are happy to enjoy the dishes the way they’re made here.
We considered sharing an order of the tres leches cake that we had seen served to the birthday boys and girls but decided against it because, as I mentioned, the portions here are massive.
Dinner for two with one cocktail each ran $79, and yes, that does make this by far the most expensive Mexican restaurant in Manhattan Beach. To this I can only say that you are paying for the beach adjacent rents, high server to diner ratio, and the upkeep on a beautiful old building. This won’t be the place you come to grab a quick taco on your way somewhere, but will consider when you want a relaxed meal in stylish surroundings. If you’re coming here for your birthday and the servers find out then you’ll spend part of the evening wearing a hat and posing for pictures, but that’s a risk you may be willing to take.
Pancho’s is at 3615 Highland in Manhattan Beach, corner of Rosecrans. Open Mon. — Thur. 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Fri — Sat 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Valet or street parking. Full bar, wheelchair access OK, some vegetarian items. (310) 545-6670. Menu at panchosrestaurant.com.
by Richard Foss