If you ever needed proof that, in some way, Long Beach's “Iowa By The Sea” nickname still lives on, stop by Pancho's Mexican Restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway for lunch.
Despite the fact that the restaurant's rock-crusted façade and neon lights peering through its tinted door screams “aging Reno casino circa 1975,” the windowless dining room will always filled with aging families from another era of the city, one where bean fields became tract homes and Mexican food meant putting cheddar cheese on everything.
With a faded pastel interior and plates of beans and rice more befitting of a Midwest truckstop diner than a Mexican restaurant in a city that is 40% Latino, Pancho's remains the most diverse city in the country's elusive doughy, white center.
But shamelessly serving the same bland salsa and lard-less beans for the last 30 years doesn't necessarily make Pancho's bad eats. For those days when a taqueria is too casual and Super Mex too autentico, a local institution like Pancho's is the place to gorge on Mexi-style comfort food at its most basic.
Pancho's tackles all the standards–tacos, tamales, enchiladas, burritos, tostadas, chile rellenos–making each available a la carte, as a lunch combo with rice and beans or with another item in a generously portioned dinner combo. No matter what you order, it's hard to spend more than $10 on a meal, especially with the $6.80 lunch combos (choose from one taco, one enchilada, one taquito or a tamale) running all day.
If you're looking for any semblance of the real flavors of Mexico, steer clear from the tamales and enchiladas and instead head straight for the tacos and burritos. Unlike the tamales (where the soft masa overtakes its fillings with the taste of cornmeal) or the enchiladas (which are filled with lots of onions and doused in a flat tomato paste), the crispy tacos are overflowing with slow-simmered shredded meat and burritos come loaded with enough of the kitchen sink to create an explosion of textures and tastes.
Who cares if the ground beef might just be regular diner chili–simmered with onions and tomato sauce to become a soupy meat mix for burritos and tostadas–or the closest thing to hot sauce in the place is a house-made salsa roja that has nary a morsel of spice in sight?
Pancho's remains a perfect vision of Americanized Mexican comida, a place where the roadside diner lifestyle (think grey-haired waitresses that have been pulling plates from the same kitchen for decades and regulars who make reservations by saying “table for Bill”) collides with the vague understanding white people had of things Mexicans ate in the '70s.
It's no wonder it originally landed in Iowa By The Sea, but it's a feat that's its stuck around in the International City for so long.
Pancho's, 4925 Pacific Coast Hwy, Long Beach, (562) 597-7891
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.