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Ponchito’s Taqueria & Cantina

Some years ago, Frank Mignacca went on a trip, visiting Belize and Guatemala. On that trip, he learned, as his bus tour stopped at the many roadside food trucks and shacks popular in Mexico and Central America, that “Mexican” food wasn’t quite what we Americans are used to. Among other things, until you have sampled the cuisine fresh, with local produce and un-processed, no-preservative meats and fish, you really haven’t tasted its rich, complex flavors.

With 10 children —5 boys and 5 girls— heading for working age and a dream to open an eatery, his first thought, he said, was “Open a pizza place. 2007, we were ready to go.”

The trip, and the food, changed his mind. “It was when I saw the way they made breakfast, Mexican style, with the fresh soft tacos, beans, eggs. I wanted to try that.”

And his first restaurant turned out to be a taquiera, something along the lines of Central American fast food. “Mission style,” Mignacca explained, “is as close as we can come to the ‘real thing,’ since we can’t get the same fresh ingredients you’d find there. They call it ‘gringo food,’ but that’s in no way to suggest it isn’t delicious.”

In fact, Mignacca has found, in his travels to Central and South America, that food is one of the things that most quickly and happily blends cultures, and introduces us to one another. “In Peru,” he told us,”there was a time when they were building railroads, and a lot of Chinese came over to work on the construction. They brought their cooking style with them, and now they have a kind of fried rice there, for example, that is how they would make fried rice at home, but using the ingredients they could get in Peru. It’s good – very good.”

Mignacca’s goal, then, became to make the best Mexican dishes he could, using the ingredients found locally, and tailored to a Central New Yorker’s palette. In 2007 he opened his first taquiera at 3800 New Court Ave. Several years later he added a second location at 410 W. Seneca Turnpike, and then a food truck for events, and catering for private parties.

“It’s all your favorites —tacos, burritos, quesadillas— for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And now with this third restaurant, we also have a cantina.”

A cantina, he explained, serves all three meals but also serves adult beverages – so domestic and imported bottled beers, local drafts, and specialty drinks with a south-of-the-border style will be featured at the cantina’s bar.

Speaking of the bar, Mignacca indicated the metal-sided structure over at the side of the comfortably spacious room. He proudly showed us the bar top, a patterned surface done all in pennies. “The bright ones are after 1982,” he said, “and the dark ones, they’re older, they’re all copper.” It had been his collection, and one of the renovators from Home Headquarters suggested using them as a unique way of decorating an otherwise utilitarian surface. The effect is striking, and fun.

If you have ever visited the location in any of its previous incarnations, you’ll be surprised to find a completely renovated space that will offer take out or table service, and that is now a bright spot of color on the near west side. Your adventure will begin as soon as you park —a beautiful mural featuring faces, birds, and a tropical sky covers one wall, and a broad front deck will welcome you— and perhaps serve as summertime seating in months to come.

“I went to Boston,” added Mignacca,” and saw Anna’s Taquiera. That was a real inspiration.”

A staple of all Ponchito’s locations is take-out and delivery. “That was one of the things that made me think of a taquiera instead of a pizza place,” said Mignacca. “When you think of getting take-out or delivery, it’s pizza or Chinese. I thought, why not Mexican? So we made some tacos, three of them, put them in a delivery type styrofoam container, and waited a while, then tasted them to see if the flavor held up. And it was good, very good!”

At this latest Ponchito’s, partly because you’ll be able to sit down and eat as well as take out, Mignacca plans to expand the menu beyond the menu to some specialty sandwiches and dishes. “We’ve got a sandwich we call El Chapo. It’s pork with grilled pineapple, jalapenos, sauteed spinach and grilled red onion, a special sauce. And we’ll have Cuban sandwiches, burgers, specials, other things I discovered when I traveled.”

Not long ago, Mignacca held a hiring day, and made it a priority to hire from the neighborhood. A meet and greet will be held with the new staff shortly, and not long before this article goes to print, the town will welcome its newest restaurant with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“From that point on, 7 of my kids will be working in the business, and my oldest son will be running this place. My plan is to relax and enjoy, and we hope you all will, too!”

Nancy Roberts