It’s Thursday night at Pancho Villa on Eat Street, and thejoint is jumping. The Mexican restaurant on Eat Street has karaoke four nightsa week, but Thursday night is contest night, and more than a dozen singers arelined 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 finalson 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, byfriends of the singers, there to cheer them on. It also happens to be 2 for 1night for Margaritas – actually, every night Monday to Friday is two-for-onenight at Pancho Villa: two margaritas for $4, or two beers for $3.65. So themood 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 wasstarting, and were lingering by the door when a table of young women beckonedus to join them. We squeezed two more chairs around the table, and were quicklyintroduced to Carmen from Puerto Rico, Sandra from Mexico, and Marta fromColombia, 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 firstcontestant, and she wowed the crowd with her full-throated version of a song byPaquita la del Barrio. As she roamed the restaurant floor, mike in hand, sheflirted with the young men in the crowd.
Most of the contestants, like Raimundo, who sangPepe Aguilar’s Por Tu Maldito Amor, and Samuel, who performed RosasBlancas by Los Johnnys, seemed to be from south of the border. But there were a fewexceptions, like Jeff, tall with blond hair and a pontail, who thrilled thecrowd with an uptempo version of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya On the Bayou, in whatsounded to me like perfect Spanish. Amanda from Burnsville made it into thefinals with a crowd-pleasing rendition of Luna by Ana Gabriel.
It turns out that Amanda is a regular – she and hergirlfriend Stacy go to all the local Mexican clubs – El Nuevo Rodeo, El Pantano, evenJunBo in Richfield, a Chinese restaurant that hosts Mexican dances on weekends.Amanda and Stacy are both fans of Mexican culture: “we like Mexican food andenjoy the company of Mexican people.” Amanda’s fluent in Spanish, and startedmaking friends with her Latino co-workers when she worked at local restaurants. “To be honest, Mexicanguys love white women, and if you can speak their language, even better. We getbought drinks all the time, we get bought dinners, and we don’t even ask – theyoffer."
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 Mexicanculture and we want them to stay true to that." When men at Pancho Villa try tospeak to her in English, she insists on answering in Spanish, Amanda says. “ Ifwe wanted to speak English, we would go to Champps.”
At the end of the evening, the votes are tallied, and Silviaand Amanda have both made it into the finals, along with Raimundo,Samuel and Perla. There will be two more semi-final rounds thisThursday, and November 29 (they are skipping Thanksgiving) and then they willall 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.
For a sample of the musical delights, click the multimedia links at left, or use the links below.