As we waited for a server to bring us the bill after a weekday dinner, we heard someone yell "Bitch!" in a joking, high-pitched voice. It turned out that one man at a neighboring table of three had taken it upon himself to pay the check. He got the usual thanks, but not without a bit of sass. A few moments later, a couple holding hands (both men wearing tank tops and jean shorts) strutted by with a pack of dachshunds and a large greyhound in tow. There seems to always be a lively crowd at Pinche Taqueria on Wilton Drive, and that makes for plenty of good people-watching.
Tuesdays, as they always should be, are Taco Tuesdays, and here, nine varieties were offered at $2 apiece. Unfortunately, both the sweet potato and the crunchy shrimp tacos were already sold out for the night. We opted for Baja-style fish (usually $4), coated in panko bread crumbs, fried, and topped with a spicy coleslaw; braised lamb ($4), with a fresh-tasting cucumber salsa, mint and cilantro sauce, and salty, crumbled Cotija cheese; and al pastor ($3.25), a Mexican classic with slow-roasted pork and pineapple.
Despite being a taqueria — a no-frills joint where the focus is supposed to be on tacos — we found flaws in each of the tacos we ordered. The one filled with fish was crispy with plenty of spice, yet the meat inside tasted fishy, a bit past its prime. The lamb tacos, with the vibrant flavors of mint and cucumbers, should have sung, yet the crumbly ground meat was too dry and fell out of the store-bought tortilla with each bite. Tacos al pastor had a tinny flavor that overpowered the sweet chunks of pork and made us suspect that the pineapples cubes came out of a can.
Besides tacos, Pinche offered several simple starters: quesadillas (chicken, cheese, or vegetables), burritos, fajitas, enchiladas, and a pair of salads with various Mexican staples tossed in. Pinche has partnered with Steel Gym, formerly Iron City Fitness, and the partnership has yielded a few healthy menu choices like tacos made with a leaf of lettuce in place of a tortilla. These healthy items are denoted with a barbell on the menu.
The restaurant's name is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Mexican slang. Pinche translates to a milder version of fucking — the adjective, not the verb. It got its start in lower Manhattan's Nolita district, just north of Houston Street. Jeffrey Chartier, a financier and partner in independent film studio Soho Films, wanted to open an authentic taco restaurant full of the simple flavors he found while traveling and living in Mexico. The Wilton Manors outpost is operated and co-owned by his longtime friend Stephanie Lee.
A longstanding relationship with Chartier and Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick led Lee to the quaint, garage-like space right across from City Hall that opened as Pinche in February.
Prior to opening Pinche, Lee had spent 15 years in finance as a broker and trader for various banks in New York City. She and Chartier met in 2003 and eventually worked together to open their own brokerage house. When Lee was laid off in 2006, she began working in Pinche's back office managing finances.
"I was spending winters in Fort Lauderdale and decided to work while down here," Lee said. "Several people told me there was no great Mexican restaurant on the [Wilton] Drive, so I decided to pursue that avenue."
What Chartier set out to accomplish in New York, however, didn't jibe with Wilton Manors' tastes. When Pinche Taqueria first opened, "I guess the whole authentic Mexican thing wasn't working; it was too spicy," Lee said. The more authentic dishes didn't sell. "A lot of people around here like the Tex-Mex, they like the fajitas. We still have elote, we still have the homemade guacamole, but now we have a cheeseburger taco."
Lee recently brought in chef Ron Kerr from famed Wilton Manors outpost Georgie's Alibi to overhaul the menu. Kerr is also the owner of Bite Catering and Bite Gastrotruck.
"I have been gone the last two weeks and had to leave a newly trained staff due to Art Basel and catering events," Kerr wrote in an email. "Some tweaks still needed to be made but we hope to get everything ironed out in the next couple of weeks."
No ironing needed, however, at the front of the house. A perky young waitress with her hair tied up in a wrap was ready to fulfill our every wish. "Tell me what you want, tell me what you need," she said before taking our order one night. "Here we go, honeys," she cooed as she set down a small, black, stone bowl full of chunky, well-seasoned guacamole ($6). Besides some stale tortilla chips and a few hidden, palate-scorching pieces of jalapeño, the Hulk-colored dip tasted of fresh herbs and avocado. It was a steal compared to the countless Mexican chain eateries that make guac tableside — and charge $24 a bowl (cough, Dos Caminos, cough).
Pinche Taqueria outdoes its local competitors on style as well as price. The 70-seat restaurant has a red-brick façade painted with two fighting cocks, and a green awning hanging over the sidewalk. Instead of a standard person-sized front door, a whole wall of the restaurant opens up, and patrons enter through a large green garage door. A few tables and a bar jut out onto the patio, allowing diners to eat while enjoying a breezy South Florida winter evening.
Inside are mostly high-top communal tables and a few for small groups. Orange-brown walls are adorned with beer-branded mirrors and the work of a local artist. A large window offers a glimpse into the stainless-steel kitchen. Above the bar hang three-dimensional iron star lamps that, along with strings of multicolored lights, shed a cool glow throughout the restaurant.
The large bar, with myriad tequila bottles sitting behind it, teased us to order a drink. Our waitress' mention of two-for-one margaritas ($6) along with Taco Tuesday sealed the deal. She even had the good sense to ask whether we preferred them with or without salt. One with, one without, we said, and moments later, ice-cold goblets arrived. Even with house tequila, the margaritas were mellow and the bartender had the know-how to add just enough sour mix so as not to leave our faces puckering.
"We make our own sour mix," Lee said. "It's not from a soda gun."
Like Pinche's tacos, some items had small mistakes that threw off the entire dish. Chicken tortilla soup ($4) came in a red clay bowl full of tender pulled chicken topped with fresh chunks of avocado, tortilla strips, and cilantro sprigs. Yet the broth was way too salty. Had it been any saltier, the hearty bowl would have been inedible.
Not everything was a miss, though.
Brisket rancheros ($12) were a pair of rolled-up corn tortillas filled with melting beef. The tough cut was seasoned with ancho peppers, garlic, cumin, and oregano, then braised for six hours in beef stock, tomato, onion, and Coca-Cola. The enchiladas were topped with a spicy tomato sauce, cheese, and more cilantro. We ended up unfurling the tortillas — which Lee later confirmed were brought in, not made in-house — and polishing off the meat with the accompanying long grain rice and chunky refried pinto beans.
Protein, this time carnitas, was again the highlight of the burrito, which we ordered without the tortilla as a low-carb bowl (a Chipotle knockoff). A pile of tender, juicy pork shoulder was cooked confit-mojo style with sour orange, bay leaf, and garlic and served atop rice, chopped onion, and tomato with a smear of refried bean clinging to the plate. The meat fell apart with just the touch of a fork and quickly disappeared.
In between bites, we were entertained by a group loudly celebrating a birthday with an endless cascade of margaritas.