You’ll find neither Poncho nor a villa at 600 N. Tyler Street.
But you will find Poncho’s Villa, a 38-year-old North Little Rock restaurant that jumped the river a few weeks ago because a street widening project is taking its previous home on East Broadway.
It’s perfect in one respect. Nancy Johnson’s Mexican-American restaurant now occupies a former grocery/antique store/restaurant building that looks for all the world like the dozens of little neighborhood eateries that once gloriously dotted the New Orleans landscape. It’s a small frame building, its entry door pointed directly at the corner, inviting in all directions.
Inside, everyone seems to know everyone else. Johnson’s clientele followed her from the North Shore.
It is easy to see why. You do not dine at Poncho’s. You eat. Portions are huge, hot and cheap. You’re surrounded by the mostly Hispanic-themed clutter of Johnson’s nearly four decades in business: bullfight paintings, ceramic Mexicans astride burros, plants and other bric-a-brac. You sit at booths that have followed Johnson through two different Broadway locations, and whose cracked upholstery didn’t get mended before reinstallation in Little Rock.
The name suggests that “Mexican” food is the marquee item here and that is not entirely misleading. A friend of ours calls the cooking “truck stop Mexican.” Another calls it “plates of brown.” The cheese and meat sauces and basic ingredients — tortillas, beans, rice, seasoned hamburger –- all share a similar earth tone. If you ate at Town Hall in the old, old days in North Little Rock or Mexico Chiquito in its dirt-floored Prothro Junction glory days, you know what we mean. And we are not saying that is a bad thing. Not at all. Especially not when the food is served on blast furnace-hot platters, by a waitress (ours was a 15-year veteran of Browning’s in another life) wearing an oven mitt for protection.
This is NOT, we repeat NOT, “real” Mexican food. The cheese dip/sauce is the smooth variety reminiscent of canned dip or reconstituted cheese powder. We don’t care. It is what it is. Same with the salsa, replenished generously along with the warm baskets of chips that greet all diners, whether they eventually order a Mexican specialty or a plate lunch. The salsa is moderately spicy, a smooth puree of tomatoes, garlic and pepper. No fresh cilantro here.
The Villa Special, for $7.25, pretty well covers the waterfront, save for sides of beans and rice. It comes in two courses. First is a platter with a huge crisp taco, packed with nicely greasy seasoned burger and overflowing with shredded lettuce and tomato. Beside it is a fried tortilla cup filled with guacamole. This guacamole is the real thing — not much more than buttery ripe, roughly mashed avocados, mildly seasoned. Your second course is a heaping platter of brown — a molten mass of an enchilada and a “cheese taco,” really a cheese enchilada, swimming in chili con carne. It is not Nuevo Mexicano; it is not authentic, except as a representation of what Americanized Mexican food has meant in Little Rock for decades. It is a comfort food in its way and we like it precisely for what it is.
Another couple of Mexican tips: They deep fry things well at Poncho’s. So the chili relleno platter –- a couple of grenade-size, battered and fried stuffed peppers atop a plate of chili con carne and chili con queso — is a personal favorite. Some will like the mild peppers bursting with seasoned ground meat. Some will not. This reminds us, too, of another favorite at Poncho’s, the stuffed jalapeno peppers (4 for $5). We often have made a meal of these roly-poly depth charges and a generous guacamole salad ($2.95 for a small).
Mexican food doesn’t begin to cover the menu –- and we didn’t even mention fajitas, tamales or chili spaghetti. There are steaks, chops, fried catfish and shrimp. They butterfly and fry big shrimp when ordered — a dozen shrimp for $17.50, including salad, fries and rolls. The burgers are huge –- hand-formed and nicely griddled.
Want some country cooking? Here is perhaps the single biggest food bargain in Little Rock. The lunch includes meat, three vegetables, cornbread (a little sweet and dense for our taste) and dessert (commercial coconut cake one day) for $4.50. We had a nice chunk of hamburger steak smothered in a commercial gravy with sauteed onions, crisp and tart fried green tomato slices, fresh turnip greens and mildly seasoned, firm pinto beans. A quart-sized glass of tea set us back another 50 cents. Go all out and order dessert a la carte, such as banana pudding or pies fried to order.
No alcohol is sold (or cigarettes, either, though we noticed a couple of diners puffing them in a small room that could do without the smoke). Johnson says she intends to blend peacefully into the quiet neighborhood. She reported that some are trying to get her to close at 6 p.m., instead of a 9 p.m. close. (Some previous restaurants here upset neighbors; alcohol may have been a factor.) She doesn’t intend to go quietly on hours of operation. One of her most loyal customers, the legendarily feisty lawyer Sam Laser, is on the case for the defense.
600 N. Tyler St.
Steaming hot platters of Americanized Mexican food for pennies are the big draw. Don’t miss the fresh guacamole. Or a fried pie.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; noon to 9 p.m. Sat.
Inexpensive. No credit cards. No alcohol.