Mexico City, Here We Come

Penca's menu may be small but the dishes pop with flavor

Tucson is filled with Sonoran-style Mexican restaurants. Most are pretty darn good, but all serve the same basic dishes. Penca, on the other hand, takes its cue from deep in the heart of Mexico. Diners will find different choices, or at least dishes prepared in different ways.

Penca has breakfast, midday, after-work and dinner menus. They overlap some and breakfast is currently served only from 10 to 11 a.m. The menus are small but the flavors packed into all the dishes we tried were proof that good things come in small packages.

At breakfast we were practically the only people in the place. But at dinner, patrons kept coming through the doors, some for food and some just for drinks from the long list of "international" cocktails.

The space is both chic and rustic. Exposed brick gives a warm touch. Wood is repurposed in the small tables and on the walls. The space is divided into three sections: the bar area, where most of the action takes place; a space next to the bar with about a half-dozen tables; and a room toward the back that would be great for a large group of people. The bar plays a large role in the layout of the room. A row of Edison lights runs the full length of the bar. There's a couch in one corner (I would turn it to face the street) and the window/wall can be opened in cooler weather.

On both of our visits, chips and salsa arrived at the table quickly. The chips were made from flour tortillas and were warm, crisp and thicker in texture than the corn version. The salsa was amazingly fresh and chunky, with the heat balanced with a bit of citrus.

The breakfast menu has less than a dozen items but the list is unusual (no scrambled eggs with greasy bacon here). There are corn cakes ($8.50) instead of pancakes, and you can get two kinds of tortas, breakfast ($9) and veggie ($8). Coffee is French press (single, $2.50; four-cup, $8). And espresso/Americano, lattes and cappuccino range from $2 to $4.50.

The corn cakes were served with a butter blended with Cholula hot sauce and syrup. They came to the table piping hot and laced with candied jalapeño rings. The peppers were almost crunchy and their heat was tempered by the sweetness. The cakes themselves were lightly textured from the corn. Black beans sprinkled with a bit of cojita were served on the side. They were almost unnecessary, but they were tasty.

The veggie torta, served on a soft telera bun, was filled with the freshest of ingredients, including a fried egg with a deep gold yolk, creamy slices of avocado, perfectly grilled onions, rajas, a little queso fresco and a hint of chipotle crema. The sandwich was light and refreshing and would make a great start to anyone's morning.

The French press coffee complemented both plates nicely. We also sampled the horchata ($2.50). The server told us he had made it that morning, which speaks volumes about Penca's philosophy. It was like dessert in a glass.

As with the breakfast menu, dinner options are limited. Tacos ($12 for a plate with two; $10 at lunch) dominate. Diners can choose from carnitas, pescado, lengua, cabeza, guajolote, carne asada, rajas, papas and nopalitos. (That's pork, fish, tongue, head, turkey, beef, chile, potatoes and cactus for you non-Spanish speakers.) You get a choice of two sides: poblano rice, black beans, pinto beans, calabacitas, grilled spring onions or fingerling potatoes. The corn tortillas are made to order and are utterly delicious.

We opted for turkey tacos with calabacitas and pinto beans (our orders came with black beans instead). The serving of two tacos was more than enough, thanks to the sides. Shredded, moist and full of flavor from slow-cooking, this was great turkey. The calabacitas, with two kinds of squash and red peppers, were tasty, too.

Then we ordered chile en nogada ($17), a dish from the heart of Mexico that has a charming story attached to it. (Google it.) A large pobalno chile was stuffed with picadillo and topped with a creamy walnut sauce and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. It was served with a mess of black beans and some of those grilled spring onions.

The chile en nogada was, in a word, fabulous. The picadillo was a nice mix of sweet and savory thanks to tender bits of pork, plantains, apple and dried fruit. The walnut sauce was smooth and light and the pomegranate seeds popped in the mouth all nutty and sweet. The onions on the side were a revelation. The grilling had brought out a sweetness I'd never tasted. I am not an onion person, but these were so delicious I ate every last bite.

We also enjoyed our cocktails; a Cuba Libre ($8) and a sangria of grenache ($7), both perfect for summer sipping. There was a hint of cinnamon in both drinks.

Only one dessert is served: churros ($7). Four hot, sweet sticks—crispy on the outside, nearly melting on the inside—were served with real fresh whipped cream and a smidge of dark-chocolate ganache. They make any of those food-stand churros you've had taste like cardboard.

Service on both occasions was attentive, helpful and totally sincere.

With all the new restaurants opening downtown (and with the messy streetcar construction) bringing in customers is a challenge. But if Penca continues to serve great food and drinks, and keeps the servers smiling, it should have no problem. I can't wait to return with more friends.

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