As we sat munching on a basket of piping hot corn tortilla chips, still shimmering from the oil bath they had received only moments before, we tried to figure out exactly why sitting in one of the booths in the back of the restaurant felt exactly like being in Mexico. Hacienda Pancho Villa doesn’t go completely over-the-top with their decor; the waitstaff aren’t wearing holsters filled with hot sauce, there are no gigantic luchadores anywhere, and there are no pinatas hanging off the ceiling. It might be the very sparseness with which the restaurant is decorated that makes it feel so much like a family restaurant South of the Border. There are a few sombreros tacked on one wall, a few pieces of talavera pottery; another wall is filled with a gallery of the kind of faux-antique black-and-white portraits of Pancho Villa that you find sold in the tourist traps up and down the Pacific Coast. The concrete walls are textured and grooved, as if by trowel-wielding albanile, and painted a bright, rusty orange that casts all of the customers in a lovely, warm light. Though there are a few other people in the dining room at lunchtime, the waitress makes sure to warmly greet every single person that comes through the door, mostly in Spanish, even as she zooms back and forth between the kitchen and her waiting tables. It feels good.
Jillian: Hacienda Pancho Villa is a very typical Mexican family restaurant. It’s not a loncheria or a cocina economica, which are very small, like three tables small, home-based businesses where the specials change daily and are served by the silver-toothed women of the house. When you take your early meal there, inevitably sweating into your steaming bowl of nose-to-tail soup, sipping your glass-bottle Coca Cola through a straw, and swabbing yourself with dozens of the single-ply napkins, you can sigh and say contentedly, “Ah, now this is authentic.”
After greedily munching our way through most of our chips and salsa (which may have come from a jar, though a fresh pico de gallo is available for just $2.99), we moved on to the enormous menu. There were a few surprises on the Hacienda Pancho Villa menu, including an enchiladas con mole ($11.99), camerones a la diabla ($14.49), and a torta made with either chicken or carnitas for $8.49, alongside more standard Tex-Mex offerings, including a gigantic $16 “Burrito Macho” that the restaurant dares you to try and finish.
Because I wouldn’t have time for a three hour nap that day, I steered away from the burritos and tried the “Tacos al Carbon” combination plate ($13.49), selecting “pastor” as my taco filling. Minutes later, the waitress reappeared with a dinner plate the size of a truck tire, covered in refried beans, rice, three tacos, and scoops of guacamole and sour cream. To my surprise, the corn tortillas for the soft tacos were dipped in some sort of salsa roja prior to assembly, which added flavor but made them somewhat difficult to handle. The pork inside was delicious, well-seasoned with a few bits of crunchy skin and succulent fat, even if it didn’t bear any resemblance to a typical pastor preparation. The lack of pineapple, orange, and achiote flavors made this pork preparation seem more like carnitas, but getting hung up on this minor detail didn’t slow me from finishing all three tacos in just a few seconds. The giant pool of pinto bean refritos was excellent, oozing slowly over the warm plate and mixing well with the lightly seasoned rice and guacamole. Spice levels were low across the board, but a sidecar of pickled jalapenos perked the flavors up considerably.
Just as she does when overwhelmed with a large menu in Mexico, Jillian defaulted to an order of chicken fajitas ($9.00), served at half-size for the lunchtime crowd. A large-sizzling cast iron skillet overflowing with strips of marinated chicken, onion, and peppers, more beans and more rice were ideal for folding into the warm flour tortillas that accompanied the dish.
Jillian: I ordered one of the lunch specials, a half-order of chicken fajitas with flour tortillas and guacamole and a fountain coke packed with ice. First, we have to ask ourselves, “Is ordering fajitas the lunchtime equivalent of taking your cousin to prom?” It’s familiar, you know exactly what you’re getting, you’ll have a few laughs, you won’t get groped slow dancing to “Wonderful Tonight,” and you’ll be home by eleven. A safe choice isn’t always a bad thing. The plate arrived sizzling hot, accompanied by the brave little tortilla warmer, red, plastic, and practically smiling. The refried beans on the side were a soupy slurry, blending into the yellow rice. I was pleased with my order, and nobody cried in the bathroom, drank a pint of Southern Comfort, and slept in a sequined dress alone on a beach. Not that that happened to me.
We sipped $2.50 bottles of Corona, a beer that my dad would have teased us relentlessly for three days for ordering, particularly because Hacienda Pancho Villa has a wide selection of other Mexican varieties available. Two dollar beer is two dollar beer, though, and we joked that for him, value often trumped quality, when it came to beer drinking. If paying two dollars for a Corona instead of four dollars for a Sol was a little bit less authentic, then so be it.
The notion of “authenticity” is a concept we tend to throw around a lot of this website, particularly when it comes to Mexican restaurants or Latin American dishes. As a culture, we’ve agreed to equate “authenticity” with “quality,” and tend to use the two terms almost interchangeably. For a Mexican restaurant to be good, it had better be authentic. Hacienda Pancho Villa challenges this equation, somewhat. The food is absolutely, unquestionably authentic, and exactly like meals we have had hundreds and hundreds of times in family restaurants in Mexico that felt exactly like Hacienda Pancho Villa.
That’s not to say, though, that Hacienda Pancho Villa is necessarily the best Mexican restaurant nearby. Other Mexican restaurants in the area sometimes use better ingredients, preparing Mexican food in a studied, intellectual way that can often taste better, even if it isn’t quite as “authentic.” Hacienda Pancho Villa is preparing honest Mexican food the way it is actually prepared in Mexico, not in the way a classically trained chef with a passionate interest in “New Mexican” cooking might prepare it. There is unquestionably no more authentic Mexican cuisine than that being served at Hacienda Pancho Villa anywhere nearby, even though there may technically be better food.
Jillian: I had this exact meal a thousand times in Mexico. At a restaurant called “La Parilla,” adjacent to the fancy mall, under a palapa in a touristy pueblo where we’d go to swim, in the historic Merida town square. In fact, fajitas were the very first thing I ever ordered on the day that we arrived, and I remember thinking that I’d get more adventurous and that we must have chosen a very silly eating establishment because we were so obviously very green foreigners. It was so much more common than we knew. And so it was funny, and a comfort, and a delightful surprise to find this totally unassuming place on Rt 1 in Brunswick.
When I am craving Mexican food, it’s not because I have a sudden hankering for melted cheese and tequila. Okay, sometimes. Usually, it’s because I want to actually be in Mexico, and in this way, Hacienda Pancho Villa delivers a better experience than any Mexican restaurant we have tried in Maine. As we sat waiting for our check, a young family came in, a middle-aged man with his black cowboy hat-wearing brother and very young, pigtailed daughter. They spoke in rapid-fire, Northern-style Spanish to the lone waitress and whoever was manning the kitchen, explaining that the daughter, born in the United States, spoke only English. The waitress teased the girl good-naturedly, in the easy, casual way that many Mexicans seem to approach children, and the little girl smiled and laughed. After they took an order to go, the waitress returned to our table, returning our repeated “thanks” with a “gracias” of her own, asking if we had special plans for Easter, and telling us about the party she was planning with her three children, complete with pinata. For just a moment, we felt like family, and it’s this kind of warmth and atmosphere that will bring us back to Hacienda Pancho Villa the next time we long to be in Mexico.