La Pachanga Delivers Comfort Food, Mexican Style
La Pachanga is a tiny, simple eatery serving homemade delights from Oaxaca.
Thursday, November 7, 2002
Photo by: Randy Tunnell; Fish Fiesta: Pescado Veracruz (right) is one of the more unusual offerings at this Oaxacan eatery.
It''s hard to get non-Marina residents out to a Marina restaurant. It''s too far, they moan, and it''s too hard to find anything there. The city''s shops and restaurants seem to be all bunched together in the endless stripmall of Reservation Road, an area that''s difficult to navigate.
I had to call La Pachanga for directions. "Reservation Road, in the mall right behind the McDonald''s," I was told. Great. Not an auspicious beginning.
But once I rounded the Great Golden Horns, averting my gaze all the while, it was easy as flan to locate the two-month old restaurant. I went first for lunch, and liked it so well I came back for dinner; I was extremely pleased on each occasion.
La Pachanga''s decor is non-descript-typical mall-deli material, with white walls and floor, a front counter, simple square tables and cafeteria chairs, and a few desultory Mexican decorations, broken up by three cozy "private" banquettes for two jutting out of one side wall.
But you don''t go to La Pachanga for the wall hangings. You go for the friendly service, the low prices, and the simple, well-conceived Mexican country cooking, prepared with love and care by owner Pablo Robles and his staff.
On my two visits, I tasted three appetizers. As each one was served, I had to smile. First of all, they looked so cute: each nestled on a bed of two small, fried homemade corn tortillas, piled high with their respective fillings. And all three were full-on taste treats. Pablo''s Tostados Negras (my personal favorite, $4.25) was covered in a concoction of spicy chorizo sausage, black avocado leaf beans (how often do you see that on a local menu?) and jalapeno peppers, topped with a generous helping of soft white Mexican cheese. It was crunchy, spicy and delicious. The Memelitas ($3.95) were delicately-flavored and nourishing, with a mixture of sweet ground pork, roasted tomato salsa and onions, topped again with the Mexican cheese. The chalupas ($3.95) were a standout-atop two puffed-up deep-fried corn tortillas was piled a mound of potatoes slow-cooked with garlic and an amazing, spicy-and-bitter thick sauce made of two kinds of hot peppers, hand-roasted over an open flame to give it an unusual smoky flavor.
I have to mention that the wait staff is very solicitous, eager to explain the more unusual menu offerings and offer recommendations. On both visits, my party was clearly the only one in need of such advice-all the other patrons were Hispanic, a mark of approval in any Mexican restaurant.
Although I would have been happy to make a full meal out of my appetizers, my reviewing duties required me to plunge forward into the entrees. And after a deep breath and half a Corona, I felt able to take them on. La Pachanga offers a nice selection of Mexican fish and seafood dishes as well as the more typical enchilada-chile relleno-fajitas listings. But there was nothing typical about the chile relleno I ordered as a side dish ($3.75). It was light and moist, the egg cooked just enough, the cheese meltingly hot. A good chile relleno is usually a harbinger of even better things to come, and I was not disappointed.
My favorite of three entrees was Mole Oaxacaqueno ($9.99, with rice and beans), a full, tender chicken breast slathered with a dark, almost black, homemade mole sauce that was simply exquisite. The waitress told me they pound it out in the kitchen using three kinds of peppers and 30 different spices, along with the bitter chocolate at its heart. La Pachanga also makes a red mole sauce, but I can''t see why anyone would choose that over this midnight chocolate madness.
The Camerones a la Diabla ($8.25, with salad and rice) was a generous helping of large shrimp in a spicy guajillo red sauce. The sauce was a bit overpowering on the shrimp, but it was so thick and delicious I was tempted to pour it over my own selection, Pescado Veracruz ($9.25, with rice and beans). At first taste, I thought my dish too plain. But I think my tongue, on fire from the previous pepper-heavy offerings, needed a little time to calm down and appreciate the simple, lovely plate of fresh white fish, grilled with an almost evanescent batter, and topped with an odd mixture of barely-cooked red cabbage, red onions, and green and black olives. Although I appreciated the aesthetic purity of the raw vegetable topping, I didn''t think the flavors melded enough. It seemed too...brutal. And when I took a bite of what I thought was a sliced green pepper, I went through the roof. Whoa! Japapeno baby! Pass me that Corona again!
But my dining companion took a forkful of my dish and started to rave. "It''s fantastic," she urged, as I resisted the temptation to dump her diablo sauce all over it. "Just taste that fish!"
So I tasted it again. And she was right. The almost painfullly plain preparation allowed the flavor of this Bay-fresh fish to shine through. It was, as my grandmother in New Jersey would have said, "a nice piece a fish." And half of it made a great leftover lunch the next day.
For value alone, La Pachanga is a wonderful addition to the Marina dining scene. It''s a great place to stop over for dinner on, say, your way to a show at CSUMB''s World Theater. Or even for no reason at all.