This restaurant closed several years ago, but the location is still unoccupied.
Pancho Villa was a Mexican revolutionary, a champion of the poor, a builder of schools, a brilliant military strategist, a decent propagandist, and a dancer of legendary stamina. He was hated by thousands, loved by millions (and also, reputedly, by a few too many wives). The new restaurant that bears his name, on the corner of State and Meadow Streets, is nearly as exciting as he was, with its bright blue walls, ambient Mexican pop music, warm and pleasant service, and a menu that's a bold adventure from soup to dessert.
Owned by partners Rene Albuja, who manages the front of the house, and chef Andres Chafla, its offerings are essentially authentic Mexican regional fare (the cooking staff hails from a variety of Mexican states) that's taken a slight detour through Manhattan. Chafla shows both adventurousness and creativity in flavor development and presentation, and a predilection for working with fresh ingredients. And it serves him and his patrons well.
On a miserable and rainy Saturday night, we joined a throng of families, couples, and double-daters, and warmed ourselves with a sampling of soups. A butternut squash and black bean soup turned out to be two soups splitting one bowl down the middle, with a squiggle of crema tying them together. The earthy, salty bean soup offered a compelling counterpoint to the sweet spicy squash puree. The chorizo soup was a Mexican take on chowder, a cream-based melange of spicy sausage, potatoes, celery, corn, carrots - true comfort food.
On an earlier visit, we enjoyed the tender carnitas - shredded pork in a citrus marinade - and enchiladas with the house mole. A mole, a complex sauce made of ingredients that may include unsweetened chocolate, various seeds and nuts, and chiles, is a good test of culinary skill, and Chafla's moles prove him a master. A spicy pale green mole focused on chiles and ground pumpkin seeds; a raspberry mole was fruity and a little tart; and the house mole, a more traditional blend of dark unsweetened chocolate, seeds, and chiles, was our favorite. Each was complex in its own way, and each was delicious.
This evening, we branched out into the even more exotic. The cochinita pibil was also marinated, shredded pork, this time baked in banana leaves, topped with a fresh pico de gallo sauce, and served with a side of crisply grilled vegetables, along with the traditional rice, beans, and warm tortillas. Plantain rellenos were sweet, ripe plantains - big brothers to bananas - stuffed with spicy ground beef (chicken and vegetables were also options), garnished with guajillo pepper sauce and lime crema. The combination of flavors was inspired. But also appetizing are the salmon three cheese (goat, muenster, and cream) burrito, or the barbequed chicken chimichanga.
The food at Pancho Villa is not highly spiced; if hot stuff is your medicine, you may want to bid the waiter make a trip to "the vault" for a side of the restaurant's homemade hot sauce.
On the sweet side of things, Pancho Villa was reputedly fond of ice cream, and the restaurant stocks several varieties, as well as fried ice cream. We were tempted by the banana-chocolate chimichanga, but opted instead for a dense, satisfying vanilla-laced flan, and a tres leches cake, traditionally a sponge cake soaked in heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk, and then topped with meringue or icing. But Chafla chose to gild this lily with a gob of whipped cream. It would have served two easily.
Sated, we waddled out into that rainy, wind-whipped evening feeling happy and fulfilled. We enjoyed the entire experience, and plan a near-future return.
Located at 602 West State Street, Pancho Villa is open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner, and late enough for after-theater eats. The man Villa was a teetotaler, but you don't have to be. While the restaurant doesn't yet have a liquor license, it is fortuitously located right across State Street from a beer specialist with a terrific selection of Mexico's finest. The restaurant is family-friendly, and vegans and vegetarians will find plenty to tickle their palates. For reservations and information, call 272-2038.