Report, Los Panchos Restaurant, Merced
Finally, a new Mexican restaurant to check out and report on in Merced! This is great news for me in a town where the Mexican food has been surprisingly disappointing…
Although, in truth, Los Panchos isn’t new. The owners moved to the new location on G Street (former location of Casa Oaxaca, which has been closed for almost a year, nice to see the space occupied again) from a location in South Merced that was fairly out of the way (and that I hadn’t gotten around to trying), and where they apparently weren’t doing much business. A colleague tells me they also have a branch in Atwater, and he swears by it, though I haven’t confirmed that the two places are related.
Anyway, hubby, son and I set out to try it last week. Verdict: nothing earth-shattering, but we left happy and all agreed we’d come back. Quite good on a Merced scale, decent on a valley-wide or LA scale…
The owners are from Michoacan, and the menu reflects this regional bent. As is the case in many central valley restaurants (but not many in Merced) seafood comprises a large portion of the offerings: there are at least 10 types of camarones (shrimp) on offer, along with pescado frito and several caldos de pescado (along with caldo de res).
Fresh, hot chips and two salsas were brought immediately. Both salsas had a good amount of heat: one was chipotle-based, the other was a salsa cruda which was very good but oddly, it was a bit on the sweet side (even though it was also spicy, with visible chunks of jalapeno. )Might have even had a bit of sugar in it. Salsas were brought in small bowls but replenished when we quickly ran out.
To start, I ordered a ceviche tostada: the fish in the ceviche was very sweet and fresh tasting, and the portion was generous. The fish was chopped in small bits and served with slices of avocado and cilantro.Unfortunately, the dish had more lime than I’d prefer (and I ordinarily love lime, enough so that I made the mistake of squeezing a bit more on before tasting). Anyway, I’d give the ceviche a B.
Other dishes at our table:
Chicken enchiladas dinner for hubby. I didn’t try them; looked fairly standard., but not gloppy with too much cheese, so that was a good thing. Shredded chicken inside. He liked them.
Chicken tacos for son. Didn’t try those either, What is it with the men in my family and chicken? However, I did taste the guacamole that came on the side with the tacos and it was well above average. Son also ordered a taco de carne asada; did taste that, the asada was good.
Unfortunately, I am limiting my seafood intake considerably these days, and was over my (personally set) shrimp limit for the month, \With a long, regretful look at the camarones, I decided to try the carnitas. Crispy and juicy, and very flavorful. Came with sliced avocado, more salsa, very average refried beans, and better than average arroz mexicano, with a few vegetables stirred in. The rice was light and fluffy. An order of corn tortillas were thick and fresh, but probably not house made. My guess is that they buy their tortillas at El Rancho Market (a local Mexican supermarket that has an in-house tortilla making operation).
All of our dishes came with a tiny Mexican flag on a toothpick for decoration. Sort of cute.I like the implied statement of pride that the flag made, even if it was slightly cheesy.
Service was very good: there were two large groups when we came in (which was nice to see; I am sure they can use the business) but nonetheless our server kept everything running smoothly.
Total with three Negro Modelos (menu is wine and beer only), tax and generous tip was under $60 for the three of us. We had enough food left for lunch the next day.
Los Panchos is open daily and serves breakfast also. On my list to try soon: the Caldo de res, huevos rancheros, and at least one of those shrimp dishes.
A colleague who is aware of my passion for albondigas mentioned that they were now on the menu at Los Panchos, so hubby, son and I headed over there last night for a little post-birthday celebration. Sure enough, a sign at the door advertised that they now have both pozole and albondigas...
hubby and son again both ordered chicken (sigh): chicken taco and enchilada for son; chicken fajitas for hubby (sigh again, although I will admit that the chicken fajitas looked very good for those that like that sort of thing).
I debated getting both the albondigas and a tostada de camaron (only $3.50 and I really want to try their shrimp one of these days) but the server said in response to my questions that the albondigas was a generous portion, so I stuck with just that.
It came out with sides of tortillas, the same good rice I'd had before, chopped onion, cilantro and both whole dried chipotle chiles and a chipotle sauce that was different (a bit more oily) than the one that came with the chips. It was indeed a huge portion; glad I listened to the server's wisdom.
And, yeah! it was very good. The broth was rich, and savory, with equal notes of beef and vegetables in its flavor. My only ding was that celery was a little too prominent, and it was a bit less tomatoe-y than my ideal, though beef lovers might prefer this version. In addition to about six or seven golf sized meatballs there were slices of carrots, onion, celery, zuchinni, and chunks of potato. The albondigas themselves had rice and just a touch of herb, and were lightly cooked.
In short, the best albondigas I've had in Merced, with the best service to boot (service was really lovely last night by our cute college aged server. Son seemed to particularly appreciate her friendliness and efficiency :-)) Unlike at Florencio's down the street, I don't have to tolerate blasting music with my meal.
We dined fairly early (around six fifteen) and the restaurant was busy though not packed. I am glad to see them doing a good business particularly since this is a family owned place.
Bottom line: if you want really outstanding Mexican food in the Valley, I don't think you will find it in Merced (keep driving to Fresno or LA for that). That said, Los Panchos has moved to the top of my list, and is now my favorite go-to spot for Mexican food in Merced. Of course, given my possibly irrational love of albondigas, that does mean I am unlikely to ever be able to give a full report on their seafood offerings....
another update: went here Friday with the specific goal of trying some of the shrimp dishes. Service was very good again. They now have margaritas on the menu, but I think they must be soju or wine based. In any case, hubby tried one, and didn't order a second, so that's not a good sign. I didn't even want to taste it after seeing the green tint of mix...
The salsa is improved, no longer a sweet taste. We also got a side of guacamole to start; definitely still above average.
As for the shrimp: after some debate, I decided to order the camarones aguachile. I've had the excellent version at Mariscos Chente in Los Angeles, and I don't know anywhere else in Merced that offers them. When the server asked me if I was sure I wanted them, 'they are served raw, and the dish is very spicy', I was sure I was on the right track for a new find in my small town! Hubby went with al mojo de ajo.
Alas, the aguachile was a disappointment. Actually, the shrimp themselves were quite nice: plump and fresh, but they were so drowned in the sauce that when the plate came out I couldn't even see that it was a shrimp dish! (looked like a green soup). It was clear that it was made with fresh serranos, as it should be, but I think the lime juice might have been from a bottle, which made the burn of the chiles much less enjoyable....served with saltines and topped with sliced avocado and cucumber. There were perhaps six medium large shrimp on the plate.
Which is more than hubby got: his dish was quite tasty, lovely garlic, and again, the shrimp were fresh and good, but only four or five of them, for $12.95, seemed a bit steep.
Think I will stick with the albondigas next time.
>>> What is it with the men in my family and chicken?<<<
LMAO. Thanks for the report Susan, I'm with you, have never had a chicken taco (or taquito, or tostado, or quesadilla, or torta) in my life. Probably have to cop to ingesting some in fajitas mixta a time or two, but never by choice.