It’s Thursday night at Pancho Villa on Eat Street, and the joint is jumping. The Mexican restaurant on Eat Street has karaoke four nights a week, but Thursday night is contest night, and more than a dozen singers are lined up to compete. The prizes in tonight’s semi-final round are small stuff –a bottle of wine, a gift certificate, but the singers who make it to the finals on December 6 will be competing for a top prize of $1000; plus CD recordings of their performances and other prizes.
Every seat in the house is taken – mostly, it seems, by friends of the singers, there to cheer them on. It also happens to be 2 for 1 night for Margaritas – actually, every night Monday to Friday is two-for-one night at Pancho Villa: two margaritas for $4, or two beers for $3.65. So the mood is festive and the decibel level is high. I thought the crowd was about three quarters Latino, one-quarter Anglo, but owner Ivan Cardenas says most weeknights it’s about 50-50.
We had just finished our dinners as the competition was starting, and were lingering by the door when a table of young women beckoned us to join them. We squeezed two more chairs around the table, and were quickly introduced to Carmen from Puerto Rico, Sandra from Mexico, and Marta from Colombia, and a guy named Jesse, who were all there to cheer on their friend Silvia from Guatemala. They’re friends from work – medical interpreters at HCMC – except for Marta, who worked with them, but now teaches English Language Learners at a Minneapolis elementary school.
When the competition got underway, Silvia was the first contestant, and she wowed the crowd with her full-throated version of a song by Paquita la del Barrio. As she roamed the restaurant floor, mike in hand, she flirted with the young men in the crowd.
Most of the contestants, like Raimundo, who sang Pepe Aguilar’s Por Tu Maldito Amor, and Samuel, who performed Rosas Blancas by Los Johnnys, seemed to be from south of the border. But there were a few exceptions, like Jeff, tall with blond hair and a ponytail, who thrilled the crowd with an up tempo version of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya On the Bayou, in what sounded to me like perfect Spanish. Amanda from Burnsville made it into the finals with a crowd-pleasing rendition of Luna by Ana Gabriel.
It turns out that Amanda is a regular – she and her girl friend Stacy go to all the local Mexican clubs – El Nuevo Rodeo, El Pantano, even JunBo in Richfield, a Chinese restaurant that hosts Mexican dances on weekends. Amanda and Stacy are both fans of Mexican culture: “we like Mexican food and enjoy the company of Mexican people.” Amanda’s fluent in Spanish, and started making friends with her Latino co-workers when she worked at local restaurants. “To be honest, Mexican guys love white women, and if you can speak their language, even better. We get bought drinks all the time, we get bought dinners, and we don’t even ask – they offer.”
Amanda says she tells the owners, Ivan and Patricio, that “it’s great that you are trying to get white people in, but don’t Americanize (Pancho Villa). People come there because they want to be in the Mexican culture and we want them to stay true to that.” When men at Pancho Villa try to speak to her in English, she insists on answering in Spanish, Amanda says. “ If we wanted to speak English, we would go to Champps.”
At the end of the evening, the votes are tallied, and Silvia and Amanda have both made it into the finals, along with Raimundo, Samuel and Perla. There will be two more semi-final rounds this Thursday, and November 29 (they are skipping Thanksgiving) and then they will all compete in the finals December 6.
The food, by the way, is great. My favorite dining companion ordered the camarones al aijillo, a generous serving of large shrimp sauteed with garlic and very spicy guaillo peppers ($12.99), while I opted for the filete patron, a grilled steak topped with mushrooms and garlic, and flambeed (not at tableside) with Patron tequila ($11.25) both accompanied by rice, beans and tortillas. There’s lots more on the menu that I would like to try, ranging from the huachinango (red snapper) a la Veracruzana ($15.95) to the menudo, the traditional tripe soup hangover cure ($7.99). We washed it down with another daily special – a very drinkable bottle of Abrazo Garnacha for $12 – regularly $24. That half-price offer is good every day, so I guess that’s really the full price.
Pancho Villa also has some special promotions for parties – if you come in with a party of six, you get to spin a wheel when you leave – top prize is, all the drinks are on the house. And for birthday celebrations, the birthday boy or girl gets to drink on the house (again with a party of six or more.)
Pancho Villa Restaurant and Bar, 2539 Nicollet Ave Minneapolis, 612-871-7014.