But try the cochinita pibil — pork marinated in citrus and brilliant red achiote paste — for a real delight
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I have a friend who stubbornly refuses to learn anything about modern technology — had he been around when some caveman invented the wheel, he would have regarded the breakthrough with deep suspicion. He has avoided learning how to send texts on his phone, and when I demonstrated my phone’s turn-by-turn directions feature, he greeted it with the same skepticism he shows whenever I try to convince him of technology’s virtues.
I was glad that our destination on that particular trip wasn’t Paco’s Tacos in Westchester, because it would have been embarrassing when we arrived at a spot where you couldn’t actually enter the restaurant. In vain I would have explained that we were at the right address and there used to be a door here back when it was the Red Onion; he would have blamed the app.
But once you go around the building and find the actual entrance, it’s hard to believe Paco’s Tacos has only been in this location for about a decade. The interior resembles a colonial hacienda, with a menu of mostly old-school Mexican food. In a corner alcove a woman pats tortillas by hand and fries them on a grill, a sign that one of the staples of Mexican food will certainly be fresh.
The portions here are massive, so I rarely get starters, even though I know the albondigas soup is quite good. On my most recent visit I did order taquitos because I like them when they’re well made, which is surprisingly rare. I have never cooked these at home, but it must be difficult because they’re frequently greasy, tough or overcooked — sometimes, in a trifecta of awfulness, all three. These were above average: nicely crisp and not at all oily, the string beef just a bit chewy, as it should be. They’re served with a bit of lettuce topped with a sprinkle of cheese and a dab of guacamole, and it’s a nice snack while you wait for your main course. You can also occupy yourself with chips and a fresh-tasting salsa that is at least halfway up the heat meter, which means on the spicy side for most gringos.
On this particular trip we ordered a carnitas burrito, seafood tostada and tacos cochinita pibil. The latter is a style of marinade from Yucutan, in which pork is marinated in sour orange or lime juice with garlic, onions and achiote paste made from the annatto seed, and then slow roasted in a banana leaf. The achiote gives the resulting dish a subtle peppery flavor and a brilliant red color that transfers to everything else if you’re not careful — if you’re wearing white clothing, handle with care. The caution is worth it, because cochinita pibil is a delight. The acids in the citrus juice tenderize the pork and add to the depth of flavor. The version at Paco’s is exceptional and is a very good way to familiarize yourself with this rarely encountered dish. The tacos were rather messy, but if you ask they will make a burrito or tostada with the same meat even though it isn’t on the menu.
The carnitas burrito was massive and filled with pork that had a concentrated, slightly smoky flavor. Carnitas varies from moist and tender to near-jerky, and this was the softer variety. I prefer carnitas with a bit more cumin and spice, but for a mild version this was quite good.
The tostada is served in a flour tortilla shell, unless you request otherwise. On a previous trip I remembered to do so, but this time it was in a fried flour bowl. The seafood was finely diced and small shrimp were used — these don’t have much flavor, so I tasted the scallops and fish along with the beans, lettuce and cheese. A mild sauce added a delicate flavor, but I might have enjoyed something a bit more assertive; I’ve had seafood tostadas with a tomatillo sauce and like the mild kick.
We dined while enjoying the jolly atmosphere of the place. At one point the servers scurried up to a man at a nearby table, put a gaudy sombrero on his head and began bellowing a Mexican version of “Happy Birthday” with mariachi flourishes. This happens a lot here — Paco’s is apparently a favorite special occasion joint for the community.
I might have left without ordering dessert, but my companions like flan and cheesecake and both were offered. The berry cheesecake was a bit heavy and sweet for my taste, but the flan was better, with a delicate caramel flavor.
Our very full lunch ran under $20 per person including soft drinks, and I might have enjoyed a margarita but was quite ready for a siesta even without one. It was a pleasant midday meal in a place that isn’t on the cutting edge of Mexican cuisine but has plenty of character. It may take you some looking to find the door, but Paco’s is worth the hunt.
Paco’s Tacos Cantina opens at 11 a.m. daily and closes at 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays. Full bar; some vegetarian items; park behind the restaurant.
Paco’s Tacos Cantina, 6212 Manchester Blvd., Westchester (310) 645-8692 pacoscantina.net