If restaurants were people, this one would be that girl.
You know the one.
Smart. Witty. She always looks great and knows exactly the right thing to say. When she throws a party, everyone comes because it's guaranteed to be awesome all the way around: The food will be amazing, the music spot-on, guests all have a killer time, and she makes it look so effortless.
That girl's name … Penca.
The restaurant - which opened in March - is the latest addition to the growing number of downtown culinary hot spots that look and feel like they were plucked off the streets of some much bigger, swankier city.
Penca, with its well-worn wood and faded bricks, rocks an urban-chic yet rustic vibe. Owners Ron and Patricia Schwabe have crafted a charming, intimate space using mostly reclaimed materials from historic buildings they've restored through their company, Peach Properties. Lots of metal and scarred wood. The silverware's mismatched, and beer as well as sangria - a Spanish punch that's popular here - arrive at the table in Mason jars.
You know you've hit paydirt as soon as you sit down and the chips and tomatillo salsa arrive. Crisp and salted, these chips are fresh-made and perfectly fine naked, eaten one after another, bowl after bowl. But the slightly chunky salsa, with its gentle spice and tart, slightly citrusy tang, is pretty darn addictive.
Penca bills its fare as Mexico City cuisine paired with an international bar. The menu boasts the humblest of dishes - tacos made of lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head) - to an elegant chile en nogada, a stuffed chile with a rich walnut sauce. But back to the humble stuff: Penca offers chicharrónes ($5) and elote ($5) as appetizers.
Who could resist?
The chicharrónes (fried pork rinds) arrived at the table hot and liberally dusted with chile powder. They were big, crunchy clouds of porkaliciousness.
Despite being served on a stick, the two half ears of elote (corn) got a sophisticated treatment with too-skimpy-for-our-tastes drizzles of a rich chipotle sauce, crème fraîche, crumbled queso fresco and cilantro. It's a tricky thing to share, but we did our best, slicing off the juicy, sweet, lightly grilled kernels while trying to get an adequate amount of that smoky chipotle cream and cheese. They were hefty cobs, so they needed more of the good stuff.
Tacos are served two to an order with two sides of your choosing, ranging from a not-at-all-spicy poblano rice that was fluffy and moist to calabacitas, a summery dish of lightly sautéed ribbons of squash. It's a hefty plate for $12.
The full-flavored carnitas taco sported tender chunks of just-salty-enough pork with wonderfully crisp edges. The tilapia version was mild with just the barest hint of spice. A creamy sauce along with diced red onion, tomato and salty cheese crumbles added spikes of freshness. Buried beneath all the good stuff was a made-to-order corn tortilla that will change the way haters think of corn tortillas.
Unless you get 'em hot from a tortilleria, corn tortillas tend to be less than inspiring. Too often they're dry and blah. Penca's version will tug flour tortilla lovers over to the corn side. Here they're thick, soft and have such pronounced corn flavor, you almost feel like you need to pluck silk from your teeth. That good. They also won't fall apart on you.
The chile en nogada ($17) featured a roasted poblano stuffed with succulent braised pork and apples mixed with plaintains and dried fruit. Jewellike pomegranate seeds dotted a blanket of chile-walnut sauce. It almost looked too pretty to eat. The earthy walnut and light chile heat kept the sauce's richness in check while the sweet-and-savory mix of pork and fruit tickled the taste buds.
The braised short ribs ($18) seemed like they'd be right at home at an Italian restaurant served atop a bed of creamy ground hominy, a bit coarser than polenta, and tanged up with a healthy amount of goat cheese. The ribs were falling-apart succulent, and a gentle ancho chile glaze offered a muted smoky heat.
The dessert list was just two treats. The standout was the always-on-the menu churros ($7). Stacked like Lincoln Logs, the quintet of ridged fried dough was thickly coated in cinnamon-sugar. The exterior was thick and crunchy while the interior stayed soft as a pillow. You could coat the churros with the chocolate drizzles and freshly piped whipped cream decorating the plate, but they didn't need it.
Yup, Penca knows how to throw a party.
•Where: 50 E. Broadway, 203-7681, pencarestaurante.com
• Hours: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; until midnight Fridays; 8 a.m.-midnight Saturdays; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays.
• Noise level: With the high ceilings, loudish music and steady clinking of glassware at the long bar, having a conversation can be challenging.
•Alcohol: Limited wine offerings, and the eatery proudly boasts an "international bar."
• Family call: More of a hang-after-work, grown-up-evening-out kind of place, but there is a kids menu.
• Vegetarian options: Yes.
• Gluten-free: Yes.
• Price range: From $7.50 for hearty soups to $12 for a pair of tacos and two sides and up to $18 for short ribs.
Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet .com or 573-4194.