Cajun. Mexican. Cajun and Mexican. Pancho Café.
What sounds like a disastrous combination on paper turned out fantastically when I visited one of New Haven’s freshest restaurants. Pancho Café doesn’t exactly dress to impress, looking more like a poorly planned toolshed than a restaurant, but the food will leave lovers of either of its two cuisines satisfied.
When my friend and I first entered the restaurant we nearly turned around and left, believing the cramped, dark bar that’s immediately inside to belong somewhere else. Before we could leave, though, our waiter led us to a similarly cramped dining area. Decorations were nothing to write home about, with a schizophrenic mixture of Cajun and Mexican-themed wall paintings, headpieces and posters covering most of one wall.
I was unimpressed, to say the least.
Thankfully, our lunch got a lot better from there. Pancho’s guacamole, which looked like it could have come straight from the freezer, was easily one of the best guacamoles I’ve ever tasted, with a little kick at the end of each bite. Our blackened chicken fingers had an authentically Cajun mixture of taste and texture, and the accompanying sauce was delicious beyond belief, much more complex than I expected with just the perfect amount of Cajun spice.
Unfortunately, our appetizers set the bar a little too high for the entrees — while both were delicious, neither possessed the right amounts of anything. Our chimichanga didn’t have the zest I expected, settling for a heartier but blander feel, and the accompanying rice and beans were your standard fare. Think one step above Taco Bell and one below ¡Ay, Salsa! to get the idea.
In any case, the Cajun entrees, if a little pricier than the Mexican fares, proved themselves superior. Pancho’s Louisiana catfish came closer to my expectations with a battered/fried exterior and a gravy-like cream drizzled on top that was so fatty-good I knew I’d regret it when I stepped on the scale. Like the sauce for the chicken, this richer version spoke of much more than just a simple tartar and suggested that this is where the chef focuses most of his time; I, for one, certainly didn’t mind.
Moreover, the catfish was complemented extremely well by the fantastic jambalaya, which had a much more subdued taste. Unfortunately, the center of the fish lacked flavor, which, although negated by the strong creaminess and taste of the sauce, was still noticeable.
Overall Pancho Café is a fine addition to the New Haven dining scene, especially in that it fills the somewhat conspicuous lack of Cajun food this side of Whalley. The bonus is Pancho doesn’t try to fuse the two gastronomies, instead presenting them in separate dishes.
Located on restaurant-heavy Chapel across from Dunkin’ Donuts, Pancho Café has found its niche despite an underwhelming decor. And including both spicecentric dining cultures on the menu works to the restaurant’s advantage. It was clear throughout the meal that each cuisine has benefitted from the mixture, with the spices having evolved to form the central taste of every plate. Even Pancho’s table salsa, the one flavor allowed to represent both cultures at once, was superior to others around town.
Craving Cajun? Go to Pancho’s; you’ll come back for the sauce.