I have always been intrigued by the idea that when the temperature outside is hot, eating spicy food will help keep a person cool. Many of my friends who are diehard fans of highly seasoned food say it really works. Now that fall seems to have arrived, a steaming bowl of chile verde sounds a lot more appetizing than it did during the sauna-like heat waves we experienced this past summer.
However, a recent visit to Pancho Villa, a somewhat pricey, even up-scale Mexican restaurant in Holladay, gave us a chance to test the idea. It was a sultry, late-summer night, hot inside as well as out. The air conditioner was clearly working in the smoking section while the non-smokers sweltered. The chile verde was wonderfully piquant, but it alone did not help. Food that lacked any distinctive character as well as the muggy conditions put a damper on the evening's pleasure.Pancho Villa is one of those restaurants that has all the elements in place for a predictable and uninspired meal. The ersatz stucco interior is decorated with the kinds of artwork and accessories one expects to find in Mexican restaurants these days. There is even a mannequin, supposedly representing the famed Mexican general and revolutionary after whom the establishment is named.
However, like the mannequin, the food we sampled lacked any soul. A one-half serving of the guacamole ($3.75) was generous, but a bit too smooth and bland for our tastes. It was served in a lightly fried flour taco shell. Other appetizers include such items as nachos, quesadillas and taquitos, priced around $5.
We also tried the enchiladas Rancheras ($6.95), served with rice and beans. In the case of both the large cheese and chicken enchiladas, wrapped in flour tortillas, any flavor from the filling or the sauce was drowned by the melted cheese.
Other uneven dishes included the Camerones guayamas ($9.75), eight broiled shrimp served with rice and a dunking sauce of butter supposedly accented with lime and cilantro. Any discernible taste from the herbs and lime was lost in an overly salty slosh. A clarified butter would have better suited the tender shrimps.
The fajitas supremas ($9.95), with chicken, marinated steak and shrimp, was served sizzling hot tableside, along with several warm tortil-las. There was only one shrimp and sparse bits of steak and chicken. The chunks of green pepper and onions were crisp and smoky, lending a nice flavor to the dish, though we had to wonder where the other promised ingredients were.
The chile relleno Monterey ($6.75), two good-sized rellenos, was adequate, though the tomato sauce was relatively lifeless. The peppers were also lackluster in flavor.
Other entrees on the extensive bill of fare include chimichanga ($6.75), pineapple enchiladas ($6.95); pollo Pancho ($8.50), a breast of chicken in a mushroom and ranchera sauce; Mexican-style wienerschnitzel ($8.50), tostadas, several salads, as well as mix-and-match combinations plates of tacos, enchiladas and chile rellenos, costing between $4.75 and $7.95.
Perhaps it is the predictability, mild-to-bland seasonings and large portions that give Pancho Villa its solid reputation among a certain segment of the dining-out public. Even on a week night, there are people waiting in line. These same characteristics overshadow any spark of originality that would captivate someone searching for a bit more life.
Pancho Villa Restaurant and Cantina, 5244 Highland Drive, 277-7941. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 4-9 p.m. on Sundays. Major credit cards and checks with guarantee cards accepted. No reservations on weekends. For groups of 10 or more, reservations are accepted during the week.