Atmosphere: Attractive decor, genial service. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. Price range: A la carte dishes: around $2. Complete meals: $6 to $9. Reservations: Not necessary. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, VISA. Special facilities: Plenty of parking out front. Booster chairs and high chairs. Accessible to handicapped.
French food often is said jokingly to be the native cuisine of Washington, but that may change a bit if the influx of Californians arriving with the new administration generates increased demand for Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes.
Where does a family eat Mexican favorites? We'll be looking into some local possibilities and also invite readers' opinions.
First stop, meanwhile, is Pancho Villa, a charmingly decorated restaurant located in a Rockville shopping center.
Inside, the restaurant looks like Hollywood's idea of a hacienda: white-washed stucco walls, serapes draped casually here and there and lots of colorful flowers, plants and artifacts. Other touches: napkins folded like Mexican hata, and waiters and waitresses in traditional Mexican costume.
At each table: a bowl of spicy tomato sauce and a basket of crisp corn chips for dipping.
Most charming of all: an excellent mariachi, Carlos Fuertes, a strolling troubadour who sings soulful songs in Spanish with plenty of schmaltz.
In its menu -- many of which are unfortunately food-stained -- Pancho Villa tries, with less than happy results, to rise above the taco-joint level by offering a variety of Mexican dishes in addition to the standard taco-enchilada-burrito list.
Is it because the demand is for the standard, not the unusual, dishes that the taco-burrito offerings outshine the more adventurous efforts?
Ingredients seemed freshest, flavors most pleasing and preparation best when it came to tacos with beef stuffing, (a crisp taco filled with slivered beef flavored with cumin); to burritos, (large tortillas wrapped around flavorful meat); to refried beans, (smooth, creamy and toppped with melted cheese); to chimichangas, (fried burrito-like concoctions topped with sour cream).
Spanish rice, though appealingly flecked with red and green peppers, tasted as though it had been heated up one too many times.
All of these dishes, while flavorful, would have been better had they been served piping hot.
Less conventional dishes were less successful.Chile con queso (melted cheese) tasted as if it were made out of Velveeta. Quesadilla, (a large flour tortilla sandwich filled with cheese, chiles and chopped raw onions), was neither fried nor crisp as the menu promised, but tepid and soft instead.
Fish Veracruz-style (pescado veracruzano) was made of fish that obviously had dried out during freezing.Our waitress tactfully had suggested that the shrimp dish (with nuts) would be no fresher.
She steered us, instead, to stuffed chicken breast with Jack cheese and mild chiles.It was curiously flavorless. So was the chile verde, beef and pork cubes simmered with onions, tomatoes and chiles, yet lacking in flavor.
Pancho Villa leaves two alternatives: Either go for the good old combination platter (two are available in the $7 and $8 range) or make up your own platter from the a la carte taco-burrito-enchilada list. Request that these be served hot and you will satisfy a craving for the sort of basic Mexican food most of us know.
Children's platters are a choice of two tacos, enchiladas or one of each for $2.95. None is highly spiced.
As for dessert, the Mexican sopaipilla was disappointing. It's a mound of deep-fried dough that puffs up like a pillow and is served drenched in honey. These were doughy and dense, not light and airy.
Better to choose the excellent flan, a creme caramel that was fine. Or the empanada dulce, tortillas wrapped around canned apple or cherry filling and topped with real whipped cream. Ours was hot and delicious.
Service is thoroughly genial.
And that musician: ole!