Those who moan when another new Mexican restaurant opens in Bakersfield that we’re just getting more of the same have not been to Panchito’s Restaurant, a new place in the Eastchester neighborhood.
It’s a family-run place that specializes in Oaxacan (pronounced Wah-haw-can) cuisine, which is a region of Mexico known as the Land of Seven Moles. Sauces there are as important as they are in Italian or French cuisines, and the moles use various roasted peppers, sometimes combined with chocolate (another regional specialty) and ground almonds, slow cooked to perfection. The cuisine has been praised by Diana Kennedy in her classic book “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico,” and though it looks familiar with a reliance on corn, peppers and beans, it’s the sauces, the prickly pear juice, the hot chocolate with just a bit of cinnamon calling your taste buds and some seafood, since the region ranges from the mountains to the ocean, like California. Grasshoppers are commercially produced there and eaten as a snack like potato chips.
You notice immediately that this isn’t the typical Mexican restaurant when they bring the chips. A red sauce is drizzled over them — no dipping needed — and there’s a soft white cheese typical in the Oaxacan region called Oaxaca or quesillo. Not that different to me than the queso fresco so many restaurants offer. They have breakfast, lunch and dinner menus but this new, friendly staff may let some crossover happen, so eager are they to build the business. Thus they let me order the milanesa ($10), a lunch item available in beef, pork or chicken (I chose the poultry) with rice and beans, even though it was dinnertime. My companion got the black mole chicken plate ($12) with rice and pot beans off the dinner menu.
Everything was great. The flour and corn tortillas of course were made fresh. The black mole is considered the Cadillac of their moles and some chefs use up to 40 ingredients to make it, making sure the peppers are well roasted but not burnt to get that dark, rich color. We had a big debate about whether the tender, moist bone-in half chicken was roasted or sautéed, as the skin had a bit of a crispy edge. That sauce was a beautiful thing with those tortillas and the poultry.
My chicken was like a very thin fried chicken breast cut into strips and our charming waitress brought out three sauces for us to sample, presented in those little sliding top glass dispensers often used at coffee shops for maple syrup. One red she said was mild, another red and the green had more punch. There were 12 strips of chicken, we tried each sauce multiple times and could not find one to standout. It was just so great to be at a restaurant where everything was made on-site with true affection. The rice on each plate, slightly yellow, was mounded and presented with a parsley sprig.
Another must order is the flan ($3) made with cream cheese that’s as rich as a cheesecake and nearly perfect. It’s so impressive that I’d stop just to get that after eating elsewhere.
Beer and wine are a work in progress. They seemed to have the usual Mexican suspects in bottles for $5, but there is no wine list and I think the choices that night were merlot and cabernet sauvignon, brand undetermined.
My companion loved the way they’ve decorated the place with these white vinyl-reinforced tablecloths, very colorful fabric hanging from the ceiling near the entrance and a startling animal trophy sculpture with a great rack facing us in our booth. Plants and artistic personality abide. She was particularly won over by a side table near the entrance with two Chihuahua dogs.
I do have some concerns. The place is small and we loved the previous restaurant there, Narducci’s Burgers and Italian Ices, which a young ambitious chef opened in early 2018. Less than two years later and it’s gone. I worry that this place is away from all the other hip Eastchester locations like Angry Barnyard BBQ, Cafe Smitten and Dot x Ott. Will people seek it out? Also the staff is small and as word gets out and they get more popular can they handle that as well as they have in the early months?
In any case, if you’re adventurous about Mexican food, this is as much a must visit as Red Pepper.
Panchito’s Restaurant can be recommended for a fine dining experience.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.