Friday, June 11, 2010

Don Pancho's Tex-Mex Cafe

Don Pancho's Tex-Mex Cafe had been on my radar for some time now. As has been the case before, after reading my review of El Meson and the chiles rellenos, a suggestion was made that if I was ever in Alliance, Ohio, I should stop and check out the version at Don Pancho's. Having spent the afternoon helping out some dear friends with some of their computer issues who also happened to live out that way, I decided that I would make the short trip into Alliance and finally see what the buzz was all about.

Don Pancho's was located at 2105 West State Street, Alliance, OH 44601 and can be reached at 330-823-8390. There was ample parking in the lot in front of the restaurant when I went, but Don Pancho's has a fairly sizable restaurant and bar area and I can imagine on a busy Friday or Saturday night, you might be forced to park in one of the lots of an adjacent business.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Once inside I was quickly seated and given a menu at which to look. Instead of taking pictures of the entire menu, I focused only on the items that interested me today:

Since their entire menu is on their website, you can check it out in its entirety before you go. I knew that I wanted to try the chile relleno, but when I saw the arroz con pollo, I suddenly had a hankering for that, too. Since the chile relleno was available a la carte, I decided to order the arroz con pollo for my main entrée and got a single chile relleno as a side.

After placing my order, my server dropped off some tortilla chips and red salsa:

While the chips were fresh, there wasn't anything overtly "corny" about them. The salsa, however, was flavorful and delicious. While the ingredients for salsas normally aren't overly complicated, the freshness of the ingredients really made all of the flavors stand out. I got tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, and lime. This would probably be a little too spicy for some people, but I actually liked it quite a bit.

As seems standard with most Mexican restaurants, my food arrived in fairly short order. Here was a shot of the chile relleno:

The first thing I noticed was the amount of cheese that covered the chile. A blend of cheddar and Monterey Jack, it covered the chile and half of the plate. Underneath the cheese was a nicely fried batter and underneath that was a lovely roasted poblano pepper. You have two choices for fillings, ground beef or cheese. When I first placed my order, I got a serious nod of approval from my server regarding the chile relleno. When I asked her what her preference was for the filling, she admitted that in Mexico, they use queso fresco. At Don Pancho's, queso fresco was replaced with Monterey Jack. So I decided to go with the beef.

Here was a nice cross-sectional shot of the filling:

It turns out that the beef wasn't really ground, more like a cross between shredded and cubed. I actually liked this better than ground beef because it had a nice texture to it. The poblano pepper was sitting in a nice pool of slightly chunky ranchero sauce that tasted of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cumin. Overall, I liked the version of chiles rellenos at Don Pancho's even given the differences between this one and the one I had eaten at El Meson.

Having finished my chile relleno, I turned my attention to my arroz con pollo:

Here was a close-up of just the chicken and rice:

First impressions are always important and I immediately became concerned when I saw the cheese melted over the top. I immediately pulled out my Google phone and started searching for arroz con pollo recipes. Just as I suspected, none of the six I checked mentioned anything about melting cheese on top. When my server returned to check on me, I asked her about the presence of the cheese. She paused, looking at my dish and agreed that arroz con pollo shouldn't have cheese on top of it. Understanding that Americans seem to have a penchant for smothering food in melted cheese, I decided to look past that and dig in. The good news was that if you are looking for a simple chicken and rice dish with some "Mexican" flavors thrown in, then this is your dish. The bad news was that Don Pancho's version of arroz con pollo was a far cry from being authentic. While I certainly concede that arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that every cook makes just a little bit differently, this version missed all of the subtle, yet important qualities that a properly prepared arroz con pollo should have.

Essentially, today's dish was constructed from Mexican rice, somewhat dried out pieces of chicken, the same ranchero sauce used in my chile relleno and finished off with a ton of melted cheddar and Monterey Jack. The flavors didn't feel integrated to me at all; it was a dish composed of seemingly unrelated parts. Where was the influence of the sofrito? Where was the wonderfully yellow hue that comes from the use of achiote seeds? Where were the wonderful chicken legs and thighs with nicely seared skin that add so much depth of flavor to the finished dish? While I don't want to give the impression that this was inedible, I can safely say that I was disappointed with what I received.

Along with my arroz con pollo, I also received a junior taco salad:

Composed of standard salad ingredients served in a crispy fried bowl, I ate this because I was hungry, not because it seemed particularly appealing or authentic to me. The lettuce was Iceberg, the tomatoes were clearly February tomatoes, and the black olives were of the variety straight from the can. This could've easily been passable as something from a national fast food Tex-Mex restaurant chain.

As you can tell, gentle reader, today's dinner at Don Pancho's was a mixed bag. I enjoyed the homemade salsa and the chile relleno. The arroz con pollo and junior taco salad I would pass on should I return to the restaurant. While I realize that Don Pancho's isn't billing itself as being truly authentic Mexican, taking such a major Mexican/Latin staple like arroz con pollo and turning it from a dish where flavors simmer and mingle over time to something that is basically constructed from pieces parts to order really destroys what makes this dish so special. To then smother something which should not be smothered in melted cheeses makes this comedy of errors particularly egregious.

Don Pancho's Tex-Mex Cafe on Urbanspoon

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