Ah, Paris. The charming bistros with their plats du jour and carafes of cheap red wine, where the desilvered mirrors reflect students swapping political theories and antiquarian booksellers hunched over their fragrant bowls of pot-au-feu.
Now there’s a romantic vision that’s a few decades out of date. Paris still exists, but sophisticated young Americans with travel budgets years ago got bored with Western Europe, which is why talked-about restaurants today don’t peddle earnest versions of coquille St. Jacques and tarte tatin amid Toulouse-Lautrec prints.
Mexico City — or the DF, as stylish culture devourers call it — is ahora. Over the past few years, it’s become a favorite getaway for food-and-beverage professionals. They've flooded their social media feeds with so many adoring images that even casual eaters without passports can confidently tell you where to get the best pulque in Condesa and which torta vendor to seek out at Mercado La Merced.
And of course, it stands to reason that chefs would express their affection in restaurant form. Pancito & Lefty, Robert Berry and Jimmy Poole’s new restaurant on upper King Street, is an unabashed love letter to Mexico’s capital, in much the way that countless Chez Maisons a generation ago got all gushy about France.
From a purely culinary standpoint, that’s a fact worth cheering: The food at Pancito & Lefty is wonderful, and the mezcal-based cocktails are possibly even better. But I fear a few of the surrounding elements, bound to arouse nostalgia in diners who pine for evenings spent strolling Mexico City’s squares, could alienate customers who just want a taco and a margarita without sentiment attached.
For instance, as of this writing, there is no outward-facing Pancito & Lefty sign on the former Zappo’s Pizza, save for a piece of paper taped to the back door. The wall painted with Zappo’s name and phone number has been left intact, though, which understandably creates confusion: “What’s this?” one woman asked her date after they exited Little Jack’s Tavern next door. He told her it was a pizzeria; she nodded; and I would bet a million pesos they haven’t been back to sample the stunning Guitarrista, a tequila Manhattan with gravitas.
The lack of neon arrows orienting customers is faithful to the Mexico City experience, as are the nonworking phone and unmanned e-mail account that one of my dining companions encountered when she tried to make a reservation. Or maybe they’re intended to stir up an air of adventure, along with the dim lighting and crumpled paper menus: I’m actually really fond of the room’s intimate, nonchalantly fashionable feel.
But it’s hard to come up with a rationale for Pancito & Lefty’s prevailing service style that squares with any standard definition of hospitality.
At many restaurants strapped for staff, servers seem to have spent about as much time with the menu as you might have with the warranty accompanying your new paper towel holder. That’s certainly not true at Pancito & Lefty, where the servers are admirably fluent in mezcal-making methods and various Mexican peppers.
Yet that learning seems to have gone to their heads: Not only are menu items such as fish tacos, queso and ceviche assuredly described as “not what you’re used to,” but servers have a dramatic way of pausing after each order before decreeing “good choice” — or pointedly saying nothing at all. I was recognized at Pancito & Lefty, and still felt like I was in the final stage of a video game every time I wanted a salad.
But you know what? You want a salad, as well as nearly everything else on the menu. Over three visits, the only disappointments to hit my table were a guacamole with a distressing amount of salt and a rich horchata swamped with cinnamon. Perhaps it was meant as a reminder that I should instead have been drinking a splendidly substantial Estocada, a magenta mix of earthy beet juice and smoky mezcal.
If I could shake my fist and type at the same time, I could better express my frustration that while I’m here writing, there are right now people drinking Estocadas and eating queso fundido on Pancito & Lefty’s sunny sliver of a patio. Beneath a scattering of cilantro leaves and squiggle of hot sauce, the cheese dip on its best nights is bronzed and bubbly, its sharp-tasting grease mingling with woven-through strips of vegetal roasted poblano peppers. It’s served with warm tortillas, which are arguably architecturally unsuited for scooping, but brim with too much corn to turn down.
Those buoyant white tortillas provide the foundation for various tacos, such as a saucy take on tongue brightened by a finely diced salsa verde and golden tilefish. Fried to an appealing puff, the fish is buried under more shredded cabbage, radishes and pickled ancho peppers than the tortilla can quite contain.
Pancito & Lefty’s emphasis on freshness is the driving principle behind its collection of raw fish dishes, including a traditional aguachile plated with a crowning bouquet of translucent radish and red onion slices. Aguachile is a sort of instant ceviche, served moments after its shrimp are spritzed with lime juice. In the case of aguachile, the lime juice is blended with chiles, which is presumably why it merits a “spicy!” on the menu. Pancito & Lefty’s version has a slight sting, but it’s the kind of balanced burn that refreshes.
Another case study in present-tense cooking is a summery fruit salad that you could probably eat by the barrelful if it was beside your beach chair. It’s an absurdly simple heap of toothpick-speared mango wedges, citrus segments and kiwi slices, dusted with heat-packing achiote powder and Bulls Bay Sea Salt. More, please.
Cooked dishes are just as satisfying, ranging from a snacky hard-fried quesadilla of salty Oaxacan cheese and squash to a elaborate green-sauced chilaquiles, built on a base of chips simmered until they surrender their familiar crispness. A carne asada wrap that could pass for a Mexican gyro and tender sopes gleefully drenched with a ruddy lamb shoulder stew are standouts. And then there’s the pozole.
The pozole isn’t pretty, because that’s not the point. It looks murky and static, with just a few bobbing pork chunks to break up the maroon-hued broth; it’s up to you to garnish it with jalapenos, cilantro, radishes, onions and lime. Component-wise, this is the dish that overlaps most concretely with the South: It’s made from pork rinds and hominy.
More significantly, though, it shares a powerful sense of place. It’s impossible to try the brilliantly sonorous soup and not at least fleetingly think, “Ah, to be in Mexico City.”