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Photo by: B.A. Nilsson

Building a Better Burrito
By B.A. Nilsson

Poncho’s Mexican Restaurant
536 Crescent Rd., Clifton Park, 383-2930. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11-2:30, dinner Mon-Thu 5-10, Fri 5-10:30, Sat noon-10:30, Sun noon-9. AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: Americanized Mexican fare
Entrée price range: $7.45 (taco salad) to $15.50 (shrimp fajitas)
Ambience: cheerful, Denny’s-like
Clientele: soccer moms with families

Dinner was as much a reward as a sustenance ritual. Not because of the restaurant—once I was inside, it was a smooth, delightful experience—but because of the challenge of getting there.

Clifton Park, like Stepford, has evolved a code of behavior familiar to any commuter-suburb denizen. Because neighbors don’t depend on sustenance from the land, and therefore don’t depend on each other, the resultant isolation increases territorial urges. Boundaries are zealously guarded and fights erupt over property lines, church pews, parking spaces and, as I discovered one recent weeknight, traffic lanes.

My purpose wasn’t helped by the fact that my Chrysler Concorde, amusingly reckoned as a full-sized car, was dwarfed to nothingness by the pickups and SUVs that surged around me. As Crescent Road widened into a multilane strip-mall feeder, I was imprisoned too far to the left to make a necessary turn, and no combination of signal and speed would grant me the needed lane-shift window.

Pancho’s isn’t far from Northway exit 8, an interchange I crossed twice in pursuit of my turn lane. Housed in a former Waffle House, the restaurant building has the cheerful, neon-enhanced look of a chain place, which our server assured us it definitely is not. But the Mexican-American family that opened Pancho’s has been successful enough that a second unit is set to open next week at 1343 Central Ave., Colonie (482-3940), site of the former New York Grill.

Inside the Clifton Park Pancho’s, the brightly lighted room carries on the prefab look of the outside. Decor includes souvenir-shop accessories and airbrush- generated artwork. It could be Denny’s or Friendly’s, or any family-friendly eatery. What distinguishes it, however, is a busy staff serving better-than-average Mexican fare, nearly all of it familiar from the model long ago established to represent south-of-the-border dining.

How does Pancho’s differ from the competition? Flavors are a little bolder in some dishes, as the guacamole exemplifies—it sneaks up on you with an afterbite even as you’re enjoying the sweet, pungent mix of avocado, lemon and spices. Note, too, the accompanying chips—served as a matter of course when you’re seated—that have the look of an in-house finish.

Salsa, too, bears the mark of an original recipe. The cilantro presence is more keen, the tomato more roughly chopped. It’s not overly spicy, so I asked for something hotter and was served a monkey dish of a much more fiery concoction, complete with a whole pickled jalapeño.

Along with the guacamole ($4.25) are a number of other appetizer dips, similarly priced: concoctions of beans, cheese, spinach or a $5 combo. You’ve also got nachos to choose from, in the $5-$6 range, with the topping of your choice. And there are soups and salads as starters, including a big bowl of black bean soup ($3.70) that was more broth than beans but nevertheless rich with a deftly seasoned flavor.

Mexican cuisine lends itself to vegetarian dining, and Pancho’s calls attention to this with a column of suitable combos. Meat dishes include several beef preparations ($12-$15) and a carnitas dinner of pork tips.

A brief lexicon explains what’s what in case you’ve forgotten what’s in, say, a chile poblano (it’s a mild version of a jalapeño popper). We sampled many of the listed items, and found them all to be huge portions. The template is a serving of some characteristically seasoned sautéed ingredient—beef, usually, although chicken and beans are available—usually with evidence of onions and peppers, wrapped in or served upon corn or flour tortillas. Cumin and cilantro give the filling its Mexican-ness, and side dishes of rice and refried beans complete most of the plates.

The burrito, which sports a flour tortilla as wrapper, takes up most of a plate; the similarly fashioned enchilada is smaller and wrapped in a corn tortilla. And they’re welcome antidotes to the limp, bland versions too often foisted upon us.

A chile relleno puts the filling in a large, mild poblano pepper, while the chalupa is built on a flat corn tortilla, fried to crispness, topped with beans and guacamole. The classic taco, served in an ark of fried corn tortilla, remains as unwieldy as ever, launching its filling out the far side with each bite.

Put together two ($8.75) or three ($9.75) of the items (as described on the combinaciones list) with sides of rice and beans. Or try one of the fancier combos on the long list of especialidades, which includes an $11.50 grande special that combines much of what’s mentioned above.

Fajitas are another specialty, with lots of fillings options, singly or in combination, for $10 to $15. We saw several such platters emerge from the kitchen—appearing on the deck of a reach-through window—sizzling and steamy, and that alone is a compelling selling point. Alas, our order of chicken-filled fajitas had lost its sizzle by the time it was carried to our table. Nevertheless, the mix of meat with sautéed onions and peppers is delicious, and we enjoyed building a variety of different sandwiches with the sour cream and salsa and large flour tortillas that accompanied the platter.

Soft drink refills are free, an economic advantage when dining with kids (or with me), and the fried ice cream is an irresistible dessert. Although I long for more exotic Mexican fare, this is better than most of what you’ll find in this neck of the woods.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

We want your feedback

Have you eaten at Poncho’s Mexican Restaurant, or other recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for Nicole's Bistro Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

Actually one of the things I usually like about B.A.'s reviews, that was missing here, is that he often brings his family, specially his child to these meals and includes their dining experiences in his columns. As a parent who is always looking fo kid-friendly places that also serve good food that I'd want to eat, so I especially enjoy "his take" on what his daughter orders and how she likes it too, as well as the entire dining experience...

Margo Matzdorf
East Greenbush

I have never been to Ogdens but look forward to the dining experience. B.A.,,your review leaves me anticipating a delicious dining experience. Thank you for the suggestion, it is fun to try new things and I will let you know how I liked it,although, as usual, I am sure you are right on the mark.

Mary Pezdek

It's me again B.A. The Chain Restaurant loving fat guy who loves big, heaping helpings of prepared, marketed fried things. Even Chicken Fingers.

I could care less about Daniel's at Ogdens to be perfectly honest. I read the review mostly because my office stares right at it's front door and we all watched as the refurbishing was done. My problem here today is with your first two paragraphs.

The kind of news article that bugs you is what percentage of Americans spend 30 minutes or less preparing food!?!? You know what kind of news article bothers me? "Remains of a woman found stuffed in a barrel......" or "....Albany Police Lt. dies from injuries sustained in shootout with suspect." I realize food and it's service and preparation may be the all consuming obsession in your life, but please tell me you have a bigger heart than that.

Maybe the reason "44 percent of weekday meals in the U.S. are prepared in 30 minutes or less.." is that some people work 2 or 3 jobs. Some people may be a single parent with young children, who may only have less than 30 minutes to spare.

But I promise you this, the next time I get 35 minutes or so.........I'll order some Kobe Beef, puff pastry, shitake mushrooms and the ingredients to make a proper buerre blanc....dim the lights, put on a bowtie, apron and plenty of snotty attitude and invite you over for dinner.

Are Chicken Fingers ok for an appetizer?

Mark Eriole
East Greenbush

I really love this guys knack for picking "the best kept secrets" in the Capital District. Way to go B.A.! Keep up the good work!

Mike Aldrich
Rensselaer

Laura Leon's review was wonderful. Her descriptions of the various selections made me hungry. I am saving the review and putting it on my refrigerator to remind me to take a busman's holiday to Great Barrington for melitzana.

Joanne Lue
Albany

Having eaten here twice- I agree with all said by Nillson- HOWEVER- No authentic Mexican place should be totally rated without mention of their Margarita quality -which is superior-very limey with just the right ingredients- and their selection of Mexican Beers-Tecata-Negro Modello and Dos Equis Dark and Amber. Excellent Selection. Another mark of good Mexican cuisine is the freshness of their pico di gallo-the true MEXICAN salsa- again excellent. If it were not for the diner atmosphere I would have rated it 4 stars- and yes- please bring back the star rating system which I relied on heavily.

William Hyde
Pancho's

A surprisingly nice effort for a city which seems to only allow Italian restaurants to thrive.

Bill Graper
Scotia

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush



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