Ask Tim Haver, a trained chef, about his favorite local Mexican restaurant and he will tell you about Penca Restaurante, located on Broadway right downtown.
“There are a lot of Mexican restaurants in Tucson and there are a lot of styles of Mexican food, but Penca reminds me of something like Frontera Grill in Chicago, Rick Bayless’ restaurant. It’s all fresh ingredients and a lot of care and love in the preparation,” Haver said. “Penca is straightforward and unpretentious. [They’re not] trying to sell something that you couldn’t actually get in Mexico.”
Every meal at Penca begins with the usual chips and salsa. One bite, however, and it’s clear these chips were not scooped out of a bag and thrown into a bowl. Freshly made and still warm from the pan, the chips (and salsa) provide a wonderful hint of what’s to come.
On this visit, Haver ordered a cabeza taco (which is made from beef cheeks, not brains), a carnitas taco, and a pescado taco. Tacos are something Penca does really well, especially because they make their own corn tortillas.
“I think they put a lot of thought into each dish; it’s not massed-produced tacos or enchiladas,” Haver said. “Every plate and every dish have a lot of care put into them.”
Also on the table were glasses of limeade (which was refreshing and not overly sweet) and quesadillas with carne asada. Delicious. For dessert, there was tres leches cake, which was unexpectedly presented in a small canning jar. Again, delicious because it wasn’t too sweet; you could actually taste all parts: the real whipped cream, the sponge cake, and all tres leches.
Of course, that’s not all Penca offers. Another diner at the table ordered guajolote (turkey) tacos. There are also vegetarian taco choices, such as nopales and rajas tacos. Then there’s elote, a kind of corn cocktail, turkey pozole, and several salads. And that’s just for lunch. The dinner menu is even fuller.
What Haver likes best about Penca (besides the food, the excellent service, and the intriguing ambiance) is that the restaurant is a bit of a hidden gem. Penca is not marked with signs of any kind. You have to either stumble upon it or have it pointed out to you, almost as if it’s hidden in plain sight.
“[Penca] is kind of like a secret,” he said. “I think it would be good for a date or a special occasion or [a casual] lunch. I think it’s the type of place that’s versatile enough that you could build a whole evening around it or [go for] a late night snack after a show. I think it’s really special in that way.”
That is why Tim Haver loves where he eats.
50 E. Broadway Blvd.
Tucson, AZ 85701