Comfort food, Tex-Mex style

Clockwise from bottom - Chicken Fiesta plate; guacamole salad with chips; and a large bowl of beef caldo served with rice and corn tortillas.
  • Clockwise from bottom - Chicken Fiesta plate; guacamole salad with chips; and a large bowl of beef caldo served with rice and corn tortillas.
Release Date: 2002-06-06

When somebody at the office said his pal proclaimed Panchito's Downtown the best Tex-Mex restaurant in San Antonio, our curiosity was piqued. That's a pretty bold assertion — like saying you make the finest clam chowder in New England. We had to investigate.

Certainly, the eatery is superlative in some respects. The location, for instance, must be the city's oddest: It is in the basement of an office building near City Hall, and despite two large exterior signs, it's hard to know where you're supposed to enter. Once in the square dining room, which is illuminated by skylights, you compete for tables with all the building's employees; some offices have their own back doors that feed right into the cashier's line.

The menu looked promising: a wide variety of tacos — prices ranging from $1.15 to $1.55 — with corresponding lunch plates at five and six dollars. At the counter (there is no table service) my friend and I each ordered a plate with an extra taco on the side. While waiting for our dishes, I sipped my lemonade, and was disappointed to find a powdery-tasting beverage that recalled memories of school cafeterias rather than the exotic juice cocktails one finds at some other Tex-Mex joints.

Distraction came soon, thankfully. My friend had chosen to put this place to the litmus test with two staples: the green enchilada plate and carne guisada, both of which were quite satisfying. The tomatillo sauce on the enchiladas was fresh and tangy, and topped with the right amount of cheese. The refried beans served on the side were bland, but as my friend pointed out, the homemade recipe to which we're accustomed makes all restaurant versions pale in comparison. (Same thing goes double for the guacamole on my plate, which tasted like mashed avocados with nothing added.)

It's hard to go too wrong with carne guisada, but the taco we got was especially good: perfectly tender, with no gristle, and just spicy enough to be interesting. Here we come to another superlative: Panchito's flour tortillas are the thickest I can remember seeing — just a door or two down from Indian naan — and are ideally suited for a stewy, juicy filling like carne guisada.

The extra mass of those tortillas was a little too much, though, for the taco I ordered, which was filled with pork chop chunks and nothing else. The chops were tasty and well-cooked, and would have been a nice dish on their own; but in competition with their wrapping, they needed some kind of sauce, maybe something with vinegar. The chili sauce on the table was too much for it, unfortunately.

My main dish, the carnitas plate, was one that doesn't come with the "it must be exactly this way" expectations I had about my companion's order. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing it had been served with a little more juice. The little fried strips of meat were delicious, spiced with jalapeño and onion, but a bit dry for my taste.

I was much more taken with the borracho beans — perfectly cooked pintos simmered in a thick soup with bacon, onion, and tons of cilantro. I almost felt guilty for having a cup of them while my friend dutifully ingested his refried beans, and I felt that slight disappointment you get when a side dish excites you more than the entrée. As I type this, I'm resolving to make a big pot of them for myself this week — to hell with a main course.

We came back to the office, reflecting on a lunch that was entirely satisfying but didn't leave us with any desire to rank Panchito's against our favorite Tex-Mex shrines. (In fairness, much of the praise Panchito's draws is for breakfast tacos, which weren't on our agenda that day.) When we bumped into the guy who'd passed his pal's praise along, we wondered aloud why someone would make such a lofty claim about the establishment. "What does this hyperbolic diner do for a living?" we wondered.

He works at Penner's, we were told — the clothing store right across the street from Panchito's. A light bulb went off in my head, and I remembered the various joints that earned my undying devotion simply by virtue of being within a few yards of my workplace. Mystery solved: Familiarity may breed contempt in some arenas of life, but consistently pleasing food tends to grow in stature when it's always there for you.

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