Laughable Dining

Pancho Villa's Grill has its fans-- but our reviewer is not one of them

Several months ago, a reader e-mailed me with a suggestion for a restaurant review. She said that Pancho Villa's Grill has been "a great addition to Fourth Avenue." I thanked her and put Pancho Villa's on the long list o' places to review.

Generally, suggestions from readers end up leading me to some pretty good restaurants. Think about it: If someone likes a place enough to take the time to alert the press, chances are, the restaurant's pretty good.

But, as the saying goes: There are exceptions to every rule. And, boy, was this an exception.

Garrett and I visited Pancho Villa's Grill on a recent weekday evening. Located on the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street, Pancho Villa's occupies a cozy little space with a lot of potential. The room is narrow and long, and it's decorated in a way that's got a bit of a Western-kitsch charm. The curtain rods are supported by horseshoes; the red tablecloths--covered in clear plastic--feature chickens. The wall next to the seating area is red brick, and a TV in one corner is often tuned to sports. You get your own salsa from a small bar. It could be a nice, homey place. Could be.

We were seated at one of the tables--we were the only customers there when we arrived, although another group arrived a little later--and the server brought us the menu. The offerings include 15 combo plates ($5.99 to $8.99), "grills" with meat, fresh veggies, grilled onions, beans and tortillas (half for $15.95 to $18.99; whole for $24.95 to $30.95), burritos, tacos, tortas, hot dogs, hamburgers, menudo, quesadillas and breakfast all day long--that's a lot to choose from. I decided to try the California burro with chicken ($6.99) along with a chicken quesadilla ($3.50), while Garrett picked the carne asada combination plate ($9.99). We also decided, what the heck, to each try a house margarita ($6).

Just before our server came to take our orders, we heard a burst of laughter from the back, where the grill is. Our server and several young men were laughing about something, and when she emerged to take our order, she was still snickering, near hysterics. I ended up having to repeat my order twice to her as she chuckled, and several minutes later, she came back and had to ask again. I am certainly not the kind of person who requires a professional demeanor all the time ... but come on.

We sampled the chips and the salsa, which were OK--the chips were standard, served out of a covered bin on the counter, and the three salsas available that night ranged from pretty good (the onion-dominated, albeit a bit runny, mild) to the mediocre (the hot yet otherwise tasteless hot sauce). The green "medium" salsa was OK.

From there, the night got progressively worse. Our server, who regained her composure after a bit, brought us two of the weakest margaritas we've ever had. Garrett said he could taste no tequila at all. They were watery and weak--an absolute rip-off at $6.

Shortly thereafter--and rather quickly, to the restaurant's credit--I received my food. The quesadilla and burrito were both lukewarm. The quesadilla--cheese and shredded chicken between two small corn tortillas, with a small amount of cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers on the side--was unremarkable. However, the burrito exhibited potential. The flour tortilla contained some nice ingredients--chicken, rice, beans, lettuce, cheese, guacamole and sour cream, along with "Salsa Villa"--although they were not spread out at all. Thus, one bite tasted like sour cream; the next, like beans, etc. It would have been pretty good had the ingredients been mixed together better, and had it been warm.

As I ate, Garrett watched. And watched. More than 10 minutes passed before his food came (to her credit, the server apologized for the delay, explaining that the carne asada took a long time, and I quote, "because it's meat"). Well, it was meat, all right--a poor cut of leather-tough meat. It was warm, unlike my burrito, but pretty flavorless.

We'd had enough; we paid our check and left. For my second visit, early afternoon on the following Sunday, I asked Carrie Stern, the Weekly's listings goddess, to join me (Garrett was out of town). Our visit was a bit better--but not much.

As a soccer game played out on the TV, Carrie and I ordered a veggie burrito ($4.95) and the steak-and-eggs breakfast plate ($7.95), respectively. Carrie decided to try the horchata ($1.50), and I decided to get another margarita, to see if visit No. 1 was a fluke. It wasn't, really--while I could at least taste a little tequila, the drink was still weak and watery. So was Carrie's horchata--it was very plain and, in Carrie's words, "almost tasteless."

Our server this time around was much more professional, although after she delivered our food, we never saw her again, even though only one other table was occupied during most of our visit. The food was delivered promptly, with both dishes arriving at the same time, and both were adequately warm.

Carrie said her burrito was OK. Featuring roasted bell peppers, grilled onions, rice, beans and sour cream, it was fine, although Carrie wondered why there wasn't more of a menu variety for vegetarians. And as for my steak and eggs ... well, I'll just say that the steak was very similar to Garrett's carne asada several days before, in terms of taste and consistency. The scrambled eggs were just plain scrambled eggs, with no embellishment or spicing up. The accompanying beans, potatoes and tortillas were decent, albeit ordinary.

Thus, after two visits, I am a bit baffled ... the restaurant was not good at all. Obviously, there is stuff to like about Pancho Villa's, or at least there was at one point in time, considering the positive recommendation from the reader, and the positive press the restaurant has gotten in other media around town. Therefore, take this review--as you should with all reviews--with a huge grain of salt. I only know one thing for sure: After two chances from me, Pancho Villa's--as it stands now--won't be getting a third.

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