Flavors of Mexico

Downtown restaurant features multicourse pairing dinners

By Valerie Vinyard

As a commercial real estate agent, Patricia Schwabe saw all sorts of properties around Tucson.

When Schwabe saw the Downtown space on East Broadway Boulevard that would become Penca, she saw a lot of potential.

“The concepts (other interested parties) were talking about weren’t inspiring,” says Schwabe, describing their ideas as too casual and focusing more on takeout than dining in. “It’s close to the theater. We live Downtown, we work Downtown, we walk Downtown. My gut told me it would be a great location.”

So, Schwabe and her husband, Ron, opened Penca in March 2013. Being Penca is well into its sixth year of operation, it appears Schwabe was correct.

Actually, more than correct. In February, Schwabe plans to expand from Penca’s 74-person capacity and open a small bites/wine counter next door. The 600-square-foot location used to house offices.

Bryan Eichhorst, who is helping to plan the space and what it will offer, described it as bright, with lots of flowers.

“It’s the first shot fired by anyone in this town,” he says. “You’re not going to see the bottles anywhere else.

“It’s accessible. We’re not focusing so heavy. The wines will come from small farmers, small vintners.”

He plans to offer 400 to 500 bottles in the bar and accompanying retail shop. A name for the space hasn’t been decided, although the team is choosing between “Soif,” which means “thirst” in French, or Casa de Vidrio, where “vidrio” means “glass.”

Penca is a scratch kitchen, meaning everything—such as the sauces and salsas – is made in house. Even the oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit juices are fresh-squeezed.

Executive chef David Solorzano has been heading Penca’s kitchen for over eight months.

Solorzano formerly was the chef of Ume at Casino Del Sol and chef de cuisine at Hacienda Del Sol. The Nogales, Sonora, native moved to Patagonia in 1997. He ended up in Tucson in 2004 to help open AJ’s Fine Foods.

The 35-year-old consulted for Schwabe before he took over as Penca’s chef.

Solorzano says Penca “was the first place I was able to see my mother, my grandmother” when he was cooking.

In October, Schwabe and Solorzano debuted Noches de Penca, a six-course pairing dinner series. The every-other-month dinners take place at 6 p.m. on a Monday, when the restaurant usually is closed. The December 16 menu journeyed through the history of Mexico (1876-1911) and featured such dishes as lobster bisque, steak tartare, roasted quail and “saddle of rabbit enveloped in bacon.” The dinner costs $80 for the food alone or $120 for the food and beverage pairings.

“I have complete freedom here,” Solorzano says. “Patricia and I collaborate really well.”

Penca showcases dishes from Puebla, Mexico City, Jalisco and Oaxaca. Solorzano changes the menu four times a year.

“I feel like we try to stay pretty respectful with tradition while having a contemporary twist,” Solorzano says.

Favorite dishes include grilled and fried pulpo ($15) and chuleta de puerco ($26), and pozole ($7/$9; $6 during happy hour) is a yummy standard. Entrees range from the $18 chile relleno to the $27 Chimarro en Pipian Rojo (lamb shank).

Penca’s 3 to 5 p.m. happy hour also draws a crowd. Think $3 pints and $5 mason jars of beer; $5 glasses of wine and sangria; and appetizers include $3 tacos, $7 ceviche and $11 Tuetano, Penca’s slow-roasted bone marrow.

“I envision our dishes as simple, traditional home cooking,” Schwabe says. “We’ve evolved and grown—I’ve grown.”

She says Solorzano has transformed and expanded the menu.

“He comes from a culinary background,” she says of the Scottsdale Culinary School graduate. “He has more diverse experience.”

Schwabe employs 32, including seven in the kitchen.

“We really bring the best value for the style of food we provide,” she says. “I think we’re still very approachable.”

Schwabe hopes more people take advantage of Penca’s later-than-average hours. The restaurant is open until 11 p.m. weekdays and midnight on weekends.

“It’s a nice place to finish the night in a beautiful environment,” she said.