I love to eat out almost as much as I love to breathe. Who, after all, doesn’t like to be pampered and doted on while deciding what dish some else will cook for you? Dining out is as much about paying someone else to take care of you as it is about getting a good meal. Granted, the service you get from wait staff in Flint restaurants isn't always the kick-up-your-feet-and-let-us-spoil-you-rotten variety. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it's the hurry-up-and-order-so-I-can-move-on-to-the-next-schmuck luck of the draw.
On a recent visit to Los Panchos on the corner of South Dort Highway and Atherton Road, Stephanie and I were waited on by a server who was much closer to the latter variety. In fact, she came to our table the absolute minimum number of times required: 4—once to take our drink and food orders, once to deliver our drinks, once to deliver our food, and once to give us the bill. It’s a good thing we got there at 11:30 to beat the lunch crowd, because by the time the waitress delivered our food, she had another 7 tables to deal with. That’s 28 more trips around the dining room, if she’s operating at peak efficiency.
In her defense, though, this aging Hispanic woman was the only server in the dining room for a restaurant that has almost twenty tables. And there were no other workers in sight--no manager, no hostess, no bartender, no busboy. This heroic woman, it seemed, was running the whole place by herself. I recently learned that Flint’s restaurant industry employs approximately 13,000 workers. Panchos, at least, could stand to hire a few more.
I’m a little distracted by our server's plight, but I begin my weekly gossip update for Stephanie over a basket of chips and the house salsa, a not very interesting mix of what tasted like doctored-up canned tomato sauce with little bits of fresh cilantro. The consistency is more like that of a sauce you’d serve to make a wet burrito. I didn’t have the heart to summon the waitress to ask if there was a hotter salsa available, so I waited until her next scheduled stop at the table. Sadly, they do not offer an El Potrero-like alternative, so we turned to the nearly empty bottle of Tabasco sauce on the table and dumped it in. The difference was only marginal.
The wait for our entrees was surprisingly short. In about eight minutes, Stephanie’s enchilada plate and my chimichanga plate were laid out before us. At first I thought we’d accidentally gotten each other’s dishes. They both had a pool of refried beans, a scoop of rice, and a garnish of shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes. My two small, rolled-up tortilla shells, slathered in tomato sauce and cheese, could easily have been enchiladas. The two plates looked almost identical.
A far cry from the lunker chimis at El Nopal, these were little more than ground beef rolled into a shell and deep fried. They were alright, but I imagine that had I ordered the burrito plate, it probably wouldn’t have looked much different. Steph was equally non-committal about her enchiladas. One of my readers recently said that he felt like many of the local Mexican places have carbon copy menus and cookie cutter entrees. I wanted to disagree with him, but I have to admit that the last three restaurants I’ve been to felt a lot like variations on the same place.
Los Panchos, by the way, took up residence last December in the same space vacated by El Potrero. (Pancho’s has a second location on North Dort). With the exception of different colored booths and chairs, it looks exactly the same as it did under the previous ownership. From the outside it still looks like the Pizza Hut that originally occupied the space. What is it about the transient nature of Mexican Restaurants? El Nopal, Tia Helitas, Los Panchos, and El Potrero all opened in one location and then moved to another. I know of at least a half dozen other Mexican Restaurants that fit this same pattern. Is it just me, or is that incredibly odd?
As busy as she was, our waitress did take a few minutes to chat with us on our way out. What I sensed from her, and what I realize more generally, is that not everyone who waits tables, cooks, buses tables, or washes dishes is doing it as a career choice. I waited tables for years as I was putting myself through college, and when I wasn't in school I did it to make ends meet. With rare exceptions, working in the restaurant business is about survival, pure and simple. And survival is something people know a whole lot about in this town. Despite the lukewarm Flint Journal review posted on the wall above the cash register, Los Panchos probably knows a bit about survival too.