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Villa's good and cheap

JACOB KONST/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tucson resident Camille Anders enjoys a meal at Pancho Villa's March 8. Pancho Villa's, 401 E. Fifth St., offers cheap Mexican dining seven days a week.
By Elizabeth Thompson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 1, 2004
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This weekend, I killed two birds with one stone: reviewed Pancho Villa's Grill and overcame my deep-seated fear of puppets.

Entering the restaurant, I was struck by the groups of marionettes gracing the walls. But it was when I regained consciousness that I noticed the positive aspects of the restaurant's decor: its vibrantly colored walls, the bar of exposed brick that snakes along the room and the beautiful Saltillo-tiled floor.

Open for six months, Pancho Villa's Grill, 401 E. Fifth St., is one of the youngest of the Fourth Avenue restaurants and possibly one of the most affordable.

After we seated ourselves, our sweet but slightly neglectful waiter came with menus, chips and salsa. The short menu featured basic Mexican fare from tacos to quesadillas and burritos, most of which were under $10.

If you go ...

Pancho Villa's Grill
401 E. Fifth St.
Open 8 a.m. - 8:30 p.m. Monday - Saturday; 8 a.m. - 2 p.m. Sunday.

We opted for the shrimp taco salad, a grilled chicken torta, a carne asada burrito, and a couple of the menu's more surprising offers, like the veggie taco and a side of grilled asparagus.

To me, the customary free chips and salsa of most Mexican restaurants is usually a pretty good indicator of how the rest of your dining experience will pan out. In this case, however, the chips and salsa were not reflective of the rest of the meal - and that was a good thing. The chips were stale. The slightly thick salsa looked promising but was disappointingly bland and screamed for more onions, garlic and cilantro.

The shrimp taco salad ($4.95) was the featured daily special. The salad, which came in a crispy taco shell, was loaded with butterfly shrimp that were perfectly cooked and seasoned with a spicy chili sauce. The spice wasn't overpowering, though and was balanced by the salads' generous portions of carrots, lettuce and cabbage. It would be perfect for a light lunch.

After the salad, we moved on to the chicken torta, which is basically a sandwich. The torta ($4.95) came served open-faced on a large, grilled roll and included guacamole, shredded lettuce, onion and tomato. All together, the sandwich was all right but needed some improvement. The grilled chicken was quite dry, and it wasn't helped by the liberal amount of mayonnaise and some sort of avocado spread. I would have preferred less mayo and a truer

guacamole. The tomatoes, however, were very fresh. And though I'm not usually a fan of the raw tomato, I was coaxed into enjoying one by my dining partner.

Originally, we mistook the veggie taco ($1.50) as a side of rice and beans. After some deliberation, we decided it was our veggie taco. Call me crazy, but I expected vegetables. The taco was served open-faced in a flour tortilla with an excess of rice and pinto beans, and a smattering of grilled bell peppers and onions. While its size was ideal for an a la carte item, this taco needed help. Though I'm not a vegetarian myself, even I was disappointed by the lack of veggies. Perhaps they could introduce other veggie friends to this lonely taco, like avocado slices or their grilled asparagus.

The meal ended on a high note, however, with the Revolutionary Combo burrito ($5.25) and the side of grilled asparagus, both of which stole the show.

The burrito came in a grilled flour tortilla filled with carne asada, melted mozzarella cheese, rice, roasted bell peppers, onions and sour cream. The burrito was nicely sized, and while considerably large, wouldn't be daunting to a single diner. Somehow, each bite of the burrito had the perfect amount of ingredients - no small feat for anyone who has had the unpleasant experience of biting into a pocket of sour cream. The carne asada was flavorful, juicy and perfectly cooked.

The side of grilled asparagus ($2.50) accompanying our burrito was also cooked to perfection. It was a healthy addition to our meal and a surprising addition to the menu's otherwise standard selection. The generous helping of six plump, juicy stalks came lightly salted with just enough buttery lemon flavor to merely complement the fresh flavor of the asparagus itself.

Although Pancho Villa's Grill may need to improve upon basically good offerings, it has the potential to become a Fourth Avenue standard, especially if they lose the marionettes.

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