The post-Katrina proliferation of places serving good Mexican food quickly transformed New Orleans from a city with scant options to a burrito boomtown. But once we got over the initial delight with the expanded offerings and began exploring beyond the basics, we started parsing the new Mexican restaurants according to their specialties and our preferences, just as we do with other types of restaurants.
That's why when I think of Taqueria Guerrero in Mid-City, I imagine its huge bowls of pozole bobbing with hominy, and when Taqueria Chilangos in Kenner comes to mind so do its thin-pounded Milanesa steaks. And when I pass by the festively painted, light-strung exterior of Panchita's Mexican Criolla Cuisine I think of seafood, at least for starters.
Opened in 2010, Panchita's specializes in dishes from Veracruz, a state along Mexico's Gulf coast. One classic of this region is the huachinango a la Veracruzana, which Panchita's prepares traditionally with red snapper grilled to a darkened crust, piled with a piquant hash of tomatoes, olives, garlic and capers, blasted with lime and topped with avocado. Thick-cut fillets of tilapia are breaded and fried for the fish empanizado, or they sizzle on fajita platters, or they tumble in chunks from massive fish burritos. Broiled, three-bite shrimp are crammed with wads of cheddar and bundled with bacon. Similarly sized beauties, which taste as if they were just plucked from a backyard boil, are added to a surprisingly lush entree salad of mixed greens, apples, pineapple and almonds.
The menu covers all the usual taqueria standards, and it's worth ferreting out the seafood specialties. The tacos are good enough, but remember to ask for the thicker, more distinctive house-made tortillas, which are not always advertised but usually available. Sauces are another strength at Panchita's, especially the red salsa coating the chilaquiles. The mole that goes over enchiladas is impenetrably dark but only slightly sweet, with just a backbeat of heat beneath the main thread of toasted spices.
Meals start with a complimentary basket of chips and a changing number of varying salsas. Sometimes you get one, sometimes four, and even those that look alike rarely taste the same from one visit to the next. This is a good sign, showing that someone is making them daily and without too much of a formula.
Appetizers are beside the point for anyone intending to finish an entree. But for something extra to taste around the table, skip the puny and all-too-liquid cheese dips and have the jarochas. It's another Veracruz specialty made on a masa corn cake with the texture of thick pie crust, smeared with black beans and covered with onions, peppers and crema. It's like a hearty tostada, and it functions better as a shared starter than a main event.
Margaritas are decent, but I prefer asking for a tequila-spiked version of the normally harmless watermelon agua fresca. After all, as New Orleans continues to learn Mexican cuisine, I figure we're all entitled to a few of our own detours.