Ole Confidential

Pepe's Taco Villa restores the romance of finding the Undiscovered Cheap Ethnic Gem. Who knows? Maybe I'll run across Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster one of these days, too.

Pan y Mas, 3111 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 992-8899. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It's called "The Square": a north Phoenix neighborhood bounded by Greenway Road, Cave Creek Road, Bell Road and 32nd Street. During the past few years, it's become a crowded Mexican enclave, home to an estimated 14,000 residents, many of whom work in the not-too-distant north Scottsdale resorts.

On the area's southeastern fringe, tucked out of sight in a hole-in-the-wall storefront in a sprawling shopping complex, sits Pan y Mas. It doesn't look particularly distinguished. But wait until you taste the food. The cheery mom-and-pop operators cook up some of the best south-of-the-border dishes around, at prices so low you'll think they must be misprints.

The small place is done up in red, white and green, Mexican-flag colors. A colorful mural of pre-Columbian Mexico lines one entire wall. Other decor touches include a sombrero hanging on the wall, a television set over the soft-drink refrigerator case and a sign in Spanish advising folks how to send money to Mexico. You can also watch the family members stirring pots and slapping tortillas on the griddle. There are maybe half a dozen tables--Pan y Mas seems to do mostly takeout.

The kitchen specializes in Yucatan cuisine, intense, fragrant fare that only vaguely resembles the more familiar, it-all-tastes-the-same, Sonoran beef and cheese platters we're used to.

Why, oh why, don't more Mexican restaurants make posole? Pan y Mas puts together a wonderful red chile version, not too spicy, thick with hominy and pork so tender it falls apart at the touch of a spoon. Albondigas soup is just about as satisfying, if not quite as interesting.

Cochinita pibil is a dream. This achiote-marinated, slow-cooked pork tastes like nothing you get in a fast-food parlor. (Achiote is an essential Yucatan flavoring, with a vibrant, pungent, earthy flavor that does for Mexican dishes what saffron does for Spanish cuisine.) Try cochinita pibil on a burrito, fleshed out with cheese, onions and pinto beans. Wow. There's also a chicken version, served in corn tortillas for the rub-your-eyes price of $1.35.

Of course, it also helps when the flour and corn tortillas are topnotch. Pan y Mas' cooks don't get theirs out of a plastic bag--they make their own. You can buy them by the dozen.

Carne deshebrada is a specialty: tender, shredded beef goosed up with a bit of green chile. So is the carne molida, seasoned ground beef that tastes great stuffed into an enchilada and smothered with a bright red chile sauce.

But enchilada honors have to go to the mole enchilada con pollo, a chicken enchilada draped with a mole sauce that's just about in the same class as Pepe's.

The more familiar items also shine. For a change of pace, ask for carnitas (shredded pork) on a torta, a doughy, homemade Mexican roll, instead of a tortilla. There are four kinds of tamales; the cheese-laden green corn model is my favorite. The chorizo con huevo burrito goes miles beyond the competition, because the ground sausage here gets a vigorous Yucatan boost of achiote.

But nothing surpasses Pan y Mas' fresh, magnificent carne asada chimichanga. Is it the homemade flour tortilla, fried to a golden sheen? Is it the stuffing of carne asada pibil, big chunks of tasty beef rolled with cheese and onions? Who cares? The parts are great, and the sum is even better.

Pan y Mas has an additional attraction: a bakery. You don't see display cases filled with authentic Mexican sweets too often in north Phoenix. Look for sweet pumpkin candy; the exotic "yo-yo," a coconut, strawberry and chocolate confection; cream-filled pastry horns; fruit turnovers; and churros. You can even get a Mexican wedding cake.

Although Pan y Mas does takeout business, it shouldn't be confused with a ready-in-one-minute, fast-food shop. Because everything is made to order, you can stand around for half an hour waiting for your order to be filled. To expedite matters, I suggest you first come in to pick up a menu. That way, when the urge to eat phenomenally cheap, tasty, homemade Mexican food strikes, you can call in ahead and not spend 30 minutes, as I did, watching the cook work, inhaling the aromas and drooling in anticipation.

Pepe's Taco Villa:
Chile verde burrito
$2.95
Chile relleno
3.75
Tacos rancheros
5.95

Pan y Mas:
Green corn tamale
$1.45
Carne molida enchilada
2.25
Posole
4.25

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