Panchita’s Mexican Criolla Cuisine
1334 S. Carrollton Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70118
Napoleon's Rating: **/*****
The recent explosion of new Latin American restaurants around New Orleans doesn't just mean that we have more of them. We also have them in much greater diversity than before, with some specializing in the cooking of different Central and South American countries or even regions within them. Panchita's Mexican Criolla Cuisine is a good example. This Carrollton-area cantina looks like many other Mexican joints, but in fact it specializes in the coastal cuisine of Veracruz.
Panchita's is a pretty small space with a lot going on. The colors inside and out are as bright as a carnival, and the bare bulbs and Mexican folk art all about add to the feel. In nice weather, the best seats are definitely the ones outside on the sidewalk under the oak tree. The thick wooden tables and block seats have a homemade, rustic look.
Service staff is split between the first-generation family owners from Veracruz and college students, and both will take good care of you. The family members know the dishes better, but the students seem better able to help newcomers navigate the big menu, since they had to learn it from the ground up themselves. When it's busy here, the place can feel overwhelmed.
As soon as you sit, out comes a basket of chips and anywhere from one to four different types of salsa, depending on the day. These are free, and given the size of the entrees to come you really don't need anything else to start. If you insist, however, you can get a few different cheese and bean dips to go with still more chips, or perhaps an order of nachos.
You can get your standard, and very good, burrito or enchiladas. But I think the best way to build a meal at Panchita's is to look for the traditional Veracruz specialties, which are what sets this restaurant apart anyway. They do particularly well with seafood. The grilled fish was red snapper when we tried it, and it was served with a seasoned, crusty exterior cradled in crisp lettuce with a salad of olives, tomatoes, garlic, capers and lots of lime. Fried plantains, rice and a bowl of very creamy black beans with cheese made the plate a complete meal. They also serve a breaded and fried fish with the same accompaniments. I'm fond of the broiled shrimp, which are stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon. Another Veracruz specialty is the jarocha, which is a large, puffy corn cake topped with beans, onions and peppers and a dollop of crema, and the Veracruz-style tamales are stuffed with barbecued beef. House-made tortillas make a big difference when you get the tacos, but they're not always available.
Flan is the expected and standard dessert here. The root beer float is not, but makes an interesting option.
Panchita's serves Mexican beers and all sorts of margaritas. The watermelon margarita is especially good. There's also an array of traditional nonalcoholic "aqua frescas," like horchata and tamarindo, and the unusual regional drink called atoles, a sweet beverage made from corn.
Panchita's is a bargain any way you slice it. Some of the seafood specialties and the big grilled meat platters get up to $13 or $14, but most of the dishes are under $10. Two people can eat here grandly for less than $30. It's hard to find a cheaper breakfast anywhere.
In the growing range of Latin American restaurants locally, Panchita's is a solid choice for the standards and a great place to try something a little different, namely its Veracruz specialties. It's a bargain restaurant for a quick meal with big flavors.