by Ian McNulty
It’s the story of a buffet that burned twice as bright, made you twice as full but burned out very fast.
Pancho’s Mexican Super Buffet (100 N. Labarre Rd., phone n.a.) in Metairie has closed permanently, at least according to the unambiguous signs posted to its chained and padlocked doors.
The news comes not quite three years after the restaurant reopened from a long post-Katrina hiatus and was welcomed by throngs of fans, who eagerly lined up outside to get a table.
To its devotees, the name Pancho's was synonymous with an exuberant excess of flautas, tacos, chili rellenos, cheese enchiladas and sopapillas, with the option to pour chili and cheese sauce over just about anything. Miniature Mexican flags mounted at each table were a trademark of the place, and customers would ceremoniously raise the tiny banner up a flagpole to signal Pancho’s servers that they wanted more food.
In its glory days — and at least initially after its return — Pancho’s struck a loud chord with many people.
Pancho’s is a chain started in El Paso, Texas in 1958. One of the early expansion sites was New Orleans, where the restaurant was originally located in the Central Business District. The interior was built to resemble a Mexican town square, complete with a fountain gradually filling with pennies tossed in by kids and faux house facades lining the walls.
Back then, the influential New Orleans restaurant critic Richard Collin described the restaurant as “a miracle,” and he listed its sopapilla as a “platonic dish,” signaling that he held it in the highest regard.
“Pancho’s food is excellent regardless of price,” he wrote in 1973, when the buffet cost $1.49. “At the price it is unbelievable.”
Things evidently started slipping fast, however, and by 1976 the same critic wrote that “(t)he food is now gross, and large quantities simply underline the lack of delicacy.”
Pancho’s later moved to Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie, and despite Collin’s assessment it went on to win many new fans over the years until it was shuttered by Katrina in 2005. Prior to its reopening in 2009, thousands of people joined a Facebook group to share memories of their meals there and support the restaurant’s rumored return.
No word yet from Pancho’s corporate office about future plans in the area, but other outlets of the buffet in southeast Louisiana have suffered the same fate recently. The Baton Rouge location of Pancho’s closed in January, and a Pancho’s in Slidell closed last February.