I can’t quite recall the last time I’d seen him before Hurricane Katrina. It was likely a few days before. And in all reality, despite the Hell on earth that followed the flood, I figured he was safe. After all, Metairie was only a little beat up and bruised when everything was said and done, and his place didn’t flood.
Sadly, I – nay, the metro New Orleans area – lost a dear friend to the witch named Katrina.
The old Rosedale Mall was still standing after life returned to “normal” following the storm. Except, he wasn’t there anymore – our friend Pancho and his all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet. Really, how can things be normal when part of your lifeblood isn’t around anymore?
In a serendipitous evacuation, I wound up in Big D – Dallas. During the three months I was there, I found a brother of Pancho! I assumed if his extended family was spread out so far across the country, he would be OK back home. Apparently the resources were there to rebuild – bigger, better, more delicious (OK, that last part might not be possible).
So in the still-dark days of December 2005 I made the trek back to New Orleans. Back only a few days, I drove – well, had someone drive me; my car was flooded – to Pancho’s. Still boarded up. Weird, I thought. Maybe they’re just not ready yet. Maybe they’re still waiting for their crew to get back.
Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months. Eventually the Rosedale Mall turned to rubble and a Circuit City took its place. Where did you go Pancho? Where did you go?
They say time heals all wounds, and I suppose that’s what happened in my – and several thousand others’ – cases. The world kept on spinning, and we learned to live without our friend Pancho and his Tex-Mex smorgasbord.
Years passed by the time I moved to Dallas in the summer of 2008. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to go back. New Orleans is home, and this is where I wanted to be. Dallas is where a job was. Then, I remembered – Dallas is where Pancho’s brother is!
Now let’s be real here a minute. Dallas undoubtedly has a much better selection of Mexican food than New Orleans. Hell, even their Tex-Mex is more authentic than anything this side of the Sabine.
But for a kid who grew up in Gentilly, for a kid who had about 12 years worth of birthday Polaroids in which he’s wearing a sombrero and holding a wood cut-out of Pancho, that pot-bellied cartoon character in a mariachi outfit, Pancho’s is where it was at. (Disclaimer: I did eat at some other Mexican and Tex-Mex places while in Dallas. They weren’t bad. They also weren’t Pancho’s.)
I wasn’t in Dallas for even a few hours before I pointed my car northward on North Central Expressway and floored it to Richardson, Dallas’s Metairie.
I pulled into the Pancho’s parking lot and was utterly shocked when I got to the front door. Locked. What? What? No, no, no! What happened? There was no Katrina here. Why are you closed? What’s your excuse??? I just want some tamales and tacos!
I hopped back in my car and got on my cell phone. I called my brother back home and asked if he was near a computer. He was, and he gave me the address to another Dallas-area Pancho’s. I sped there. I got there more than an hour later. Same thing. No Pancho’s. This time it had been transformed to a CiCi’s Pizza joint.
I held out hope. There was a third location. Pancho, you better be somewhere in the DFW Metroplex, I thought to myself.
More than two hours after I began my journey, I pulled into the parking lot of the third location. There were cars in the parking lot: a good sign. The signage on the building still said “Pancho’s Mexican Buffet”: a greater sign. I opened the door and what may be effluvia to some was like a breath of fresh air to me.
If it wouldn’t have looked so damn weird I would’ve danced my way to the serving line. Instead I just walked, trying to contain my excitement. Trying is the key word.
Welcome to Pancho’s, what can I get for you? the guy at the start of the line said.
I wiped a single tear off my cheek, and without missing a beat placed my order.
Give me three tamales with sauce, a cheese enchilada, a Tex-Mex enchilada and two tacos.
I paid and found a seat in the dining room. The waitress eventually came up.
Is everything OK, sir?
I responded: Is everything OK? Are you kidding me? I just drove nine hours from New Orleans and then two more hours to get here. The other two Pancho’s were closed! Y’all were open! I haven’t had Pancho’s in years! I have to drive 17 miles to get back home after this, but everything’s great!
She responded: I’ve only been working here a short time, but you’ve got to be the happiest customer I’ve ever had. Like, ever.
Fast-forward a few months, multiply me and my reaction in Dallas by thousands and subtract several hundred miles and you have the atmosphere at the opening of Pancho’s in Metairie on Monday.
A buddy from high school wound up behind me in line. He wouldn’t shut up about how excited he was. In the dining room, in between the staccato clapping of the Pancho’s birthday song, patrons were offering variations on a theme:
This is so good, Inez. I ain’t had me no Pancho’s in YEARS!
Could this BE any better? I think the food does actually taste better, Joe.
If you sing me the birthday song, I’m getting up and standing on my chair I’ll be so happy!
Well if you want something else, just raise the flag, baby!
While the serving line has been replaced with a standard buffet where you serve yourself, it still all tastes like Pancho’s. (There’s another buffet island with pasta and … some sort of meat. I didn’t try it. But it’s there if you want options, I guess.)
A quick suggestion for management: the tamales are still good, but there needs to be a larger trashcan to throw the corn husk away in.
And so it was, with the simple opening of a door, the collective psyche of thousands was repaired; the days of PTSD may be over for some.
Welcome back, Pancho. Welcome back, and thank you.