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Mexican food, prepared in open kitchen, at Pancho Villas Bar and Grill

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Posted: Friday, March 31, 2006 10:00 pm

The spirit of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa is alive and well in Lodi. And it turns out he makes pretty good chimichangas.

Yes, after months of construction and bated breath from the foodie community (myself included), Pancho Villas Mexican Bar and Grill is officially open.

Located in the Raley's shopping center on Lower Sacramento Road, the new restaurant features an open kitchen, an extensive bar and a good selection of Mexican entrées. Oh yeah, and people. The eatery has been buzzing with eager customers since it opened last Monday.

The restaurant is the brainchild of Lodi resident Tony Rivera, who was formerly a district manager for Burger King. He has worked for the fast food chain since he was 16 at the Kettleman Lane location, but he always had a desire to open a restaurant of his own.

"I have been working on this plan for four years," said Rivera.

What he has created is a bright (er, maybe too bright with large, fluorescent ceiling panels), playful eatery with lots of different focalpoints. There's the large freehand murals, painted by Betty Del Castillo, which capture the legendary Pancho Villa and folk hero Emiliano Zapata in shades of coffee brown. There are the five flat-screen televisions that are at strategic points around the restaurant. And there is the large open kitchen, where you can watch your meal being cooked before your eyes.

Chefs here include Enedina Santa Cruz, who earned her culinary chops from working at her parents' Mexican restaurant in Guadalajara, Marina Arellano and Rivera's mother Margo. In fact, Rivera's extended family has contributed their time here to ensure the restaurant's opening runs smoothly. In the first week, Rivera clocked 200 hours of family labor.

The menu ranges from the traditional to the unexpected. Sure, you can order a taco, tostada, or burrito with a choice of meat including shredded chicken, beef, carnitas or carne asada. But they also offer specialties like Mexican ribs ($10.95, marinated ribs roasted slowly in a chile verde sauce), siete mares ($10.99, a seafood soup made with fish, crab, clams and octopus) and their signature shrimp and crab enchiladas ($10.95, shrimp and crab stuffed in rolled corn tortillas, topped with red or green sauce), which is a big seller here. Steaks (8 to 10 ounces, $11.95-$16.95) are also popular, made with Certified Angus Beef, marinated in seasonings and grilled to order on a charbroiler.

As for the drinks menu - well, how much time do you have? It reads like a compelling novel (or a trashy summer read) from the bottled Jarritos in fanciful flavors like tamarind, guava and toronja (just what is toronja, I wondered … turns out it's grapefruit in Spanish) to the 19 imported beers, seven domestic beers, the Smirnoff fruit-flavored confections, the Bacardi Silvers … the list goes on and on. But no Mexican bar would be complete without margaritas and here Pancho Villas has it in spades. Not only do they offer 36 different tequilas and margaritas on the rocks, but they have a margarita machine, which churns out the cool, blended original with a rim of salt quicker than you can say, "Does the worm really have nutritional value?"

I stopped in for dinner with two friends one evening, starved. Emaciated. But the chips and salsa arrived quickly. Their salsa bar, which is positioned toward the back of the restaurant allows customers to pick and choose from the four salsas on offer (tomatillo, medium red, fresh mango salsa and pico de gallo, along with slices of lemon and lime) and refill as you like. I immediately took a liking to the mango salsa, the mildest of the bunch, prepared with fresh tomatoes, chopped onions, cilantro, diced jalapeños and fresh mango pieces.

Altogether, we ordered the two-item combination ($9.99) with a cheese enchilada with red sauce and a soft taco with carne asada, a two-item combination ($9.99) with a chicken chimichanga and a chicken enchilada, and the shrimp and crab enchiladas ($10.95). We washed it down with beer (Corona and Heineken) and one friend tried their tasty peach margarita from their limited fruit flavored margarita menu (a choice between strawberry or peach).


Pancho Villas Restaurant's popular chile verde is served with warm flour tortillas. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

The enchiladas, rolled in corn tortillas from La Campana Tortilla Factory in Lodi, were long and cigar-sized and you could certainly eat two or three of these guys without blinking. They were smothered in a red sauce, which had a little more kick than your usual enchilada sauce, and topped with melted cheddar cheese.

There was a little confusion with the shrimp and crab enchiladas - we were given a single enchilada instead of two, which was served with beans, rice and a small salad. Even stranger, we were charged $3.50 for it. But they are still new and learning the ropes.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the chicken chimichanga, served crisp and flavorful, particularly with a side of sour cream.

Since my recent visit, I've received reports that the El Patron ($7.95) is also a good pick. It's a torpedo-sized burrito filled with cheese, rice, beans guacamole, homemade salsa, sour cream and your choice of meat. And I've heard positive feedback on their Tostada de Ceviche (marinated fish in lime juice, topped with cilantro, lemon, avocado and onions) and their mahi mahi tacos.

Perhaps for another day.

At A Glance

WHAT: Taste of Brittany Creperie

WHERE: 20 N. California St., Stockton

HOUSE SPECIALTIES: Galette poulet sauce Chardonnay, Dauphine-style potato gratin

DRINKS MENU: Espresso drinks, smoothies, soft drinks, beer, wine and French cider

PRICE RANGE: Savory crepes ($6-$9.50), sweet crepes ($2.50-$6.95), sandwiches ($5.50-$6.50), breakfast ($1.80-$7)

HOURS OF OPERATION: 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-8 p.m. Friday. 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-8 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.

INFORMATION: 946-9494

Contact Lodi Living Editor Tricia Tomiyoshi at triciat@lodinews.com.

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