Looking for Spice

Pelancho's • 1516 Downtown West Blvd.

I heard about someone who gave up Pelancho's for Lent. Just before Easter, he wasn't thinking about baked ham or even chocolate bunnies; he wanted Pelancho's. Lots of people foreswear a food group or a pleasurable activity—but a restaurant? Was this a worthy sacrifice?

Pelancho's colorful space bears no resemblance to the former Garcia's. It's worth visiting for the redecoration alone. Indoors, you'll find red tile floors and depictions of tropical birds and flowers as well as booths with tiled roofs. Its yellow, purple, and red exterior is a lively bookend to the block between it and Regal Downtown West Cinema. Its patio facing the parking lot is testament to the ability of restaurateurs to create lovely areas in challenging spaces. I visited on a blustery night, but I'd go back to this inviting space.

The menu is extensive: nachos, fajitas, burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas and so forth. It's notable that they offer a vegetarian menu along with house specials and quite a few seafood options.

There are the usual platters—every imaginable combination of tacos, burritos, chalupas, enchiladas, chile rellenos, and tostados. Tamales are also an option—not something you always find. Many platters include rice and refried beans. For about $7, these provide a lot of food for the money.

Pelancho's aggressively advertises that it uses no trans fats: a message painted on the outdoor walkway and on signs posted throughout the restaurant. I applaud their decision, but there was something off-putting about being reminded of this statement every few feet.

When I visit a restaurant for the first time, I tend to either order the basics or the house specials. On this trip, since there were three of us, I was able to mix it up a bit. We ordered the ground beef chimichanga with a cup of tortilla soup, the pechuga gratinada, and the auguacate relleno plate along with a margarita and a cup of sangria—all of which came with complimentary chips and salsa.

The chips were thin, crisp, and warm. The salsa was both chunky and watery. It was more like a bowl of flavored tomato chunks than the tongue-tingling salsa I prefer. The margarita and the sangria were rather pale—not unpleasant, but somehow lacking. The sangria definitely needed another hit of robust red wine; the margarita needed more lime juice.

Liz's beef chimichanga was satisfactory; the beef was finely ground. The tortilla soup was disappointing. The thin broth came with side items (rice, cheese, etc.) so that you could build your own soup. With the accompaniments, the soup was palatable, but it did not match its billing as "a thick soup with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and a hint of chicken broth."

At first bite, I thought Bill's pechuga gratinada, a jumbo chicken breast grilled and topped with Monterey Jack cheese, mushrooms, onions, and peppers, was too salty. After a few more bites, I appreciated its flavor. It was still salty, but in a not-unpleasant way. Best of all were the pinto beans—spicy, juicy, flavorful, good by themselves or on rice.

I ordered the aguacate relleno plate (avocado stuffed with grilled chicken, steak or shrimp, wrapped in Monterey Jack cheese, lightly breaded and fried) because I love avocados and shrimp—having those two things fried together captured my fancy. The dish was pretty good. I liked the contrast of the soft avocado and the crispy crust; the shrimp could have been spicier.

The strangest thing was our server's request that I cut my avocado so we could see the shrimp. He assured me he asks this of everyone who orders this dish. Isn't the kitchen the place for quality control measures? Having a server come by to ask, "Is everything OK?" is one thing. Being asked to dissect one's dinner is another.

If I were breaking a fast, Pelancho's would not be my first choice, but its menu is broad enough and interesting enough that I'll go back, especially if I can get a table on the patio. Just don't ask me to perform surgery on my supper.