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TulaneLSU
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TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Dear Friends,

My cousins who lived in Kenner loved Pancho's and annually, the youngest of them would have her birthday party at Pancho's. The entire family and more than 20 of her friends would go. The backroom, next to the sopaipilla fryer, was reserved for us. I liked the main room more due to the more authentic decorations and being closer to the wrap around line of people waiting with bated breath to get their fill of the best Mexican in Metairie, perhaps even better than Taco Tico. I would argue that overall Pancho's as a restaurant was better, but that the tacos at the Tico were better than Pancho's tacos.

I vaguely remember being able to look out the old Pancho's backroom windows and see that old Rosedale Mall, which had two memorable stores: a really rundown pet store, I believe it was called Pets and Stuff, and an old Kershenstine's jerky store. I knew one of the owner's sons from the playground. This view was never worth the isolation the back room made me feel. Sitting in the main room was far more social and whisked the diner to the border towns that Pancho Villa roamed a century ago. It is historically comic that one of New Orleans' most beloved restaurants is named, most likely, after a Mexican national who invaded and attacked a U.S. city. History is a funny thing. In a century's time, could there be in this land a bin Laden's Saudi buffet?





I never had the pleasure of celebrating a birthday at Pancho's, but experienced it vicariously through my cousin. Each year, she received a sombrero to wear for a free Polaroid. Before the picture was snapped, she chose the pinata of her choice from the main dining room's tile roof. It was not filled with any goodies, and that did not matter. This was the 1990s and a pinata was a big deal to a kid in the Metro New Orleans. Pinatas were not a common thing -- you couldn't get one at Walmart or the local Latino grocer as you can today. Pancho's was the only pinata game in town, and it was only at your birthday, if you were a member of Pancho's Birthday Fiesta Club, that you could get one. That Birthday Fiesta Club was something else. Nowadays, parents might be hesitant to enroll their kids in such a program, giving out secretive data like address and birthday. But 25 years ago, parents allowed for it and the blessed ones got a little postcard in the mail about a month before the big day.

Once the sombrero was on and the pinata chosen, the staff would gather to sing Feliz cumpleaños. I was too young to know the meaning, but loved singing the words, or at least an attempt at the words. At the time, I thought they were singing "Felipe Cucos Honda Audi," so that is what I sang. When the last words were sung, the waitress would grab the restaurant's Polaroid. Children had the option: keep the photo or post it on the birthday wall. I always wanted my photo on the wall. In some years, I believe a glass, like the one I have from the auction, was also given as the holder of an ice cream dessert.

That Metairie Pancho's, as most of you know, was not the city's first Pancho's. Many old timers say that the first Pancho's was downtown. Not true, my friends. The first was actually located in Old Jefferson at 725 Jefferson Highway, which most recently was a radiator shop. That big curve in Jefferson, just past the Orleans Parish line, was prime real estate for Mexican food. In 1958 both Pancho's Restaurant and Manuel’s Hot Tamale and Chili House at 952 Jefferson Highway opened. What a year for Old Jefferson it was. It closed just three years later without much pomp or remembrance.

The Pancho's Mexican Buffet that is near and dear to so many old New Orleanians' hearts first opened in February of 1972 at 918 Gravier St. in the CBD. This El Paso chain was sweeping the nation, and New Orleans joined the club, with other locations in Longview, Corpus Christi, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Albuquerque, and even Baton Rouge! Businessmen of the city rushed to join the novel Mexican food craze downtown, often spurning longtime favorites like Galatoire's and Antoine's for a slog along that hot foot line.







Pancho's was such a hit that its parent company, PAMEX Foods Inc., decided to expand to Metairie in the Autumn of 1974. The address was 3780 Veterans in Rosedale Mall, which technically was a mall, but not in the way Americans use the term. It was here that Taco Wednesday was born. For just a buck, five beefy and cheesy tacos could be had. Talk about a dollar menu! Many of Pancho's workers were immigrants and it was one of the first restaurants in New Orleans that sought Spanish speaking workers.

An all-you-can-eat meal in 1980 ran 2.99 for adults, which was a dollar more than it had been just a few years earlier at the downtown location. For many New Orleanians, it was Pancho's, not Taco Tico, that gave them a first taste of Mexican cuisine. Back in those days, the way Uncle tells it, Pancho's lacked in neither quantity nor quality. "The cooks and kitchen workers took great pride in their food in the restaurant's first decade," he told me tonight. In 1980, the restaurant opened its first Westbank store at 6575 Westbank Expressway in Marrero.

The downtown location began to struggle, as businessman shied away from the glutinous, legume-laden hotplates that may have made after lunch deals a bit gaseous. The suburban locations, however, were booming. A third location, this time in Chalmette, opened in in April of 1986. It was located at 3027 Jean Lafitte, just off Judge Perez. It suffered catastrophic flooding in Katrina and was torn down. I remember once eating here with Mother. If my memory serves me correctly, you could look out the window and see the playing fields at the old Andrew Jackson High School. I also remember that this Pancho's tasted no where near as wonderfully as the one in Metairie, nor did its decor approach the Metairie flagship's intricate design.
This post was edited on 9/9 at 11:16 pm


TulaneLSU
TBD Fan
Member since Aug 2003
Member since Dec 2007
11641 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
The artwork in the Metairie Pancho's was dark, detailed and almost entirely oil based. The figures depicted macho military men and matadors. The women were shown in maternal or seductive ways. Once when I was examining the magnificent frame of one painting, Mother thought I was ogling the female figure’s cleavage. She corrected me and told me never to look at that painting again. She also talked to the manager to have that painting removed, which I do not think ever happened. I say I do not think because I made sure never again to look in the direction of where that painting was located.

Speaking of the frames, I have vivid memories of those painting frames. They were intricately carved wood, almost black in color, perhaps made of Katalox. Seldom if ever cleaned, I can remember thinking as a child, "These paintings and their frames are filthy. I wish someone would dust them." If memory serves me correctly, there was also a fountain near the middle of the restaurant with real running water, but that memory is hazy. I do know there was a soft serve ice cream machine in a center island of the restaurant. It was accompanied by a toppings bar filled with gummy bears, sprinkles, chocolate chips and other sweets. I hardly ever ate the ice cream because the sopaipillas were so good.

In the front, not far from the cash register, was a disgusting bar, which I assume sold alcoholic beverages, but gratefully I was never with an adult who drank alcohol. To its western side was a game room with a crane and claw game. It was owned by Lucky Coin Co. if I recall correctly, and I never once inserted a dime. They were and are after me, you know. There also were electronic video games in that game nook. At one time, it hosted Metal Gear. Mother would not let me play because it was a game of violence and she knew where that money was going. Cousin let me play once, though, and I lasted only about 45 seconds. Very early in my life I vaguely recall there was also a cigarette machine in that corner. How disgusting.

At one of cousin’s birthday parties, we went on a Friday night. And boy was it crowded. I remember we joined the line, perhaps 30 people out the door. The line was so long it wrapped nearly to the takeout counter on the southeastern corner of the building, which I never had the pleasure of trying. After all, you went to Pancho’s to eat all you could, not to get a premade dish of five items.

Waiting in that line felt like an eternity. The menu was located at the end of that long line, just where you turned right, only feet before the buffet began. That was the hardest part of the wait -- those few feet right after you made the right turn. You could smell those fatty, earthy smells. You could hear the metal heated trays hitting the metal tongs the first server used to grip the trays, because they were that hot. The steam rose from those hot water bins. And then finally, you made it. Kids plates were cheaper and you had the dishonor of getting a red plastic nest for your metal tray. Adults got the real deal, a black plastic nest. Perhaps the greatest gift of puberty was making that rite of passage where the red nests were traded for black ones.

Often the workers behind the glass sneeze guard, and this was in pre-Covid19 world, pretended they did not speak English well enough to take your order. So I then, to their surprise, ordered in Spanish. The chili rellenos, tamales, and flautas were first. I loaded up on these. Next were the enchiladas. They always had the cream cheese and cheese varieties, but there would normally be a third type, often just labeled green or red. Moving down the line were the rice and beans. I firmly believe that the workers were instructed to put an order of each on every plate. If they got your plate before you arrived to their territory -- and often that was the case as the workers were radically efficient in sliding your plate down the stainless steel line, just like a barkeep might slide a drink down the bar in the Old West -- you could be assured that rice and beans would be plopped unceremoniously on your plate as though you were in a Depression era soup line. I knew this tactic, so I always readied my lips with, “No arroz. No frijoles, por favor!” It almost always worked.

It was actually Pancho's that inspired me to learn Spanish. As an eight year old, I remember reading the signs over the door. "Bienvenidos, Amigos. Mi Casa Es Su Casa" greeted your entrance. "Gracias, Amigos. Vaya Con Dios" was written overhead the exit. Mother also did not know what it meant, so I asked her to buy me a Spanish dictionary and that summer, I spent many days memorizing the entire dictionary. Years later I learned the language's grammar. And those doors -- who can forget those heavy wooden doors clad in cast iron adornments and handles fitting for a Medieval knight?

By the time I made it to the end of the line, my plate was always full. But the tacos and chalupas were waiting! No problem, of course. The chef knew to grab one of those tan plastic plates and start serving. Usually the tacos were waiting, made just minutes before by the ever-efficient taco man. I enjoyed watching the craftsman at work, so I would often order two chalupas, just so I could watch him or her, as it was normally a woman at that position, make my chalupas, which I got with beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. They were superb, and quite the novelty, as no where else I had ever eaten served tacos on a flat shell.

The drink section was next. I without exception got a tap water in those cheap, yellow plastic cups that had a comforting ridged texture. Although Jefferson Parish’s tap water is not as good as N.O. Sewage & Water Board water, it is still excellent. Often times, especially when it was crowded, you had to stand at the drink line to wait for the usher to bring you to an open table. Once there, everyone knows what came next. An absolute festival of extravagant eating. Without realizing it, a basket of chips arrived, but did chips ever deserve to hold a spot in your belly when enchiladas and tamales were ready and able claimstakers?

Soon it would be time to raise the flag, a term so endearing to so many New Orleanians. It was for many, not only their first experience with Mexican food but also with all-you-can-eat style. The flag was your one way ticket on this wonderful trip to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. And did it ever feel so wonderful when you raised it! The service was always exceptional. I can hardly remember an episode where the flag flew for more than a minute. I figured the manager threatened staff with banishment if he saw that our flag was still there.

This post was edited on 9/9 at 11:09 pm


TulaneLSU
TBD Fan
Member since Aug 2003
Member since Dec 2007
11641 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Friends, as in Chalmette, Pancho’s in Metairie did not recover from the floods. I was told that Broussard’s pumping station fiasco caused about a foot of rainwater to fill that Pancho’s. Pancho’s national was already undergoing cuts and consolidation. Profits at this store were already being marginalized by people eating Mexican food elsewhere.

August 27, 2005 was the last open day for Pancho’s in the New Orleans Metro. I know that nostalgia convinced investors to open Pancho’s Super Buffet. When it opened on April 8, 2009 to VIP Pancho’s lovers only, it looked like it would be a huge success. The new location was where Old Metairie meets Airline, at 100 North Labarre, a location which had previously been Gaylord’s Pet Shop, and later a grand Accent Annex, where Uncle and Grandfather purchased some of their throws in the 1990s.

Pancho’s new digs and old recipes did not win over a new generation of diners. As much as the true fans of Pancho’s loved the food, even they would tell you that it was not the same. That cold and generic building did not give off the sense of place the Veterans location did. Even the costumed Pancho mascot could not make it work. I tried it just once, thinking, “This food tastes pretty close to my memory. The stews are great.” But I only went once because it did not turn the key to the lock in my heart’s nostalgia box. It closed in late 2011.



The dream was not dead. Two former Pancho’s workers believed a Pancho’s knockoff could work. Thus was born in 2013 2 Amigos on Williams Blvd., in the old Come Back Inn. I have been here just once, and can say that the food is remarkably close to the original. But again, its atmosphere lacks. Part of the Pancho’s greatness, and why so many people hold it dear in their hearts, is that old, dark patio-like atmosphere. Yes, the food is part of it, but truly, it was the whole Pancho’s package that makes it so dear to us. Until that returns, and it likely never will, Pancho’s will continue only to live in our memories.

TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho’s:

10. Rice and beans
9. Soft serve ice cream at the island in the main dining room
8. Flauta
7. Cheese enchilada
6. Taco
5. Chalupa, loaded
4. Sopaipillas with honey
3. Chile Relleno, with cheese sauce
2. Beef tamale
1. Sour cream enchilada

Enchiladas, Tamales, and Sopaipillas,
TulaneLSU

P.S. Uncle is a regular bidder at auctions around the world, but monthly at New Orleans Auction Galleries and Neal Auction Company. A few years ago, while I was with him, a lot of New Orleans ephemera made its way to the auction block. Glasses, menus, and bibelots from multiple now closed restaurants like La Louisiane, Brunings, Kolbs, La Riviera, Crozier's, and yes, Panchos.

Uncle did not have any interest in it, and there was a small bidding war between two small timers. The lot looked to be headed home at $250, even as I tugged on Uncle's sleeve to raise his hand.

Fed up with being ignored, impulsively I grabbed Uncle's paddle and raised the bid to 275. It was on. By the time the smoke cleared, the lot was mine with a hammer price of $850. The room erupted in uproarious applause, as I was quite dramatic and elegant in my bidding style.

Uncle was none too pleased, but I think he has come to accept it as a good deal, as he has given out many of those old menus to friends as gifts. While ten years ago these were not highly collectible items, today, they fetch a pretty penny on eBay.


This post was edited on 9/9 at 11:10 pm


Degas
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re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Edited because original post was edited.
This post was edited on 9/9 at 10:21 pm


Degas
2187645493 posts
Member since Jul 2010
10807 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Edited because original post was edited.
This post was edited on 9/9 at 10:21 pm


Degas
2187645493 posts
Member since Jul 2010
10807 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Edited because original post was edited.
This post was edited on 9/9 at 10:21 pm


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Sun God
LSU Fan
Member since Jul 2009
25631 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Had no idea there was a panchos in the CBD

This might be your magnum opus, friend

ETA: Friend you’d be happy to know that The Florida Blvd location in BR removed their bar sometime in the late 90s to expand their dining area and add a dessert and salsa bar

I love you,

Sun God
This post was edited on 9/9 at 10:36 pm


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71
Paul Allen
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Member since Nov 2007
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re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Oh, Tulane, their Sopaipillas with honey were amazing!



Buck Dancer
LSU Fan
New Orleans
Member since Jan 2008
4001 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Friend, great post. We used to go to the Vets location all the time, even saying Ken Morris (manager at that location) was my friends dad.

Well done.


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52
Big Chipper
LSU Fan
Charlotte, NC
Member since Sep 2008
2336 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Acquaintance,

I remember fondly the opening of the Acadiana Mall in 1979. Nestled within it's food court near the theater was a Kershenstine's BBQ restaurant. So far as I could tell, they were the first restaurant that served that briny pleasure known as fried pickles.

Be Best


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cajunbuck
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re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
well done sir, well done. the flood of memories from the reading this post was amazing. i feel like i can remember it to a T. at some point when i visit, im just gonna have to try the 2 amigos just because


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LoneStar23
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re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
I don’t believe I ever had the pleasure of getting to step foot in this restaurant.


Tiger Ryno
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#WoF
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94380 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
First Time I ever shite my pants was at a panchos in lake Charles after my 4th plate of flautas and 6 sopapillas.


t00f
Tulane Fan
Eating with a mask in the zone
Member since Jul 2016
40715 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
quote:

First Time I ever shite my pants


First time? You really need to get your shite together.


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60
ThuperThumpin
Member since Dec 2013
3045 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
quote:

At one time, it hosted Metal Gear


Metal Gear arcade game in the 80's? Ive never hear of such a thing....


TulaneLSU
TBD Fan
Member since Aug 2003
Member since Dec 2007
11641 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Friend,

The bulk of my Pancho’s memories come from the early 1990s. This specific memory was from 1995 at my cousin’s 10th birthday party. She and I were born the same year. I think it was Metal Gear, but again, I am not certain.

Yours,
TulaneLSU


HECM62
New Orleans Saints Fan
NOLA
Member since May 2016
364 posts
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re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
I remember going to Pancho's CBD location after swim practice. 2 hours of swimming, burning about 5000 calories would really get the stomach ready to destroy the buffet. Great post and great memories.


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Midget Death Squad
Notre Dame Fan
Meme Magic
Member since Oct 2008
16997 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
You left off that beef stew thing they did. I have no idea what it was called, but it was beef and tomatoes in a red stew sauce. It was incredible!

Anyone know the name? I saw it on one mexican menu about 10yrs ago in Houston, and I can't remember what it was called.


Sun God
LSU Fan
Member since Jul 2009
25631 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
Metal Slug probably. BR location had that one for awhile.
This post was edited on 9/10 at 10:47 am


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BigDropper
LSU Fan
Member since Jul 2009
4680 posts

re: TulaneLSU's Top 10 dishes at Pancho's Mexican Buffet
quote:

Chalmette, located at 3027 Jean Lafitte, just off Judge Perez.

This was my Pancho's. My grandmother would take us to feed the ducks and Park Cheniere (now Sindey Torres) then we would feast at Pancho's.

I loved raising and lowering the flag for refills...

Thanks for sparking this memory!


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