By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was 1969. Man had set foot on the moon. And way down below in the sleepy San Diego neighborhood of Kensington, an ambitious cook opened a restaurant against the advice of nearby business owners. They believed it would fail because of low consumer traffic in the area.
“There wasn’t much culinary activity around here at the time,” said Ponce Meza Jr., whose father founded Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant on Adams Avenue after previously working at the former Nati’s Mexican Restaurant in Ocean Beach.
Ponciano “Ponce” Meza Sr. retired years ago. But he will be in proud attendance for the restaurant’s 50th anniversary bash, to be held from noon to 6 p.m., Sept. 15, in the adjacent parking lot and the mini park behind it. Admission is $50, which includes all-you-can-eat tacos, two drinks, a souvenir T-shirt, and live music by the B-Side Players and a mariachi band. (Admission for those 3 to 17 years old is $40.)
The restaurant has been wildly successful. It operates to a full house pretty much from the moment the doors open at 11 a.m. and until closing at 10 p.m. In addition, Ponce Jr. and his sister, Rocio, opened a second location in Del Sur, which is coming up on its one-year anniversary.
I recently visited with a friend who has been eating faithfully at the double-storefront Kensington spot since he was a kid. His go-to picks are the standard margarita made with fresh-squeezed limes, and a combination plate featuring a cheese enchilada and crunchy ground-beef taco. I’m told the latter is the exact duo of hot items that famed San Diego Padres player Tony Gwynn always ordered as a regular Ponce’s customer.
The combo plates feature a choice of either two or three main items. They come with rice and refried beans, which sneaks lard into the recipe for a creamy, comforting outcome. (Vegetarian beans are available upon request.)
Sitting within the gaze of nearly two dozen females captured in framed paintings, we scarfed down the complimentary table chips with red and green salsas in addition to a bowl of semi-chunky guacamole, which was seemingly made fresh to order.
The collection of paintings, known as “the wall of women,” was amassed over time from various flea markets and customer donations. Some of the women are unknown. Others are either current or former staffers who worked at Ponce’s for 10 years or longer. They all possess Latina beauty.
Over multiple visits, I’ve come to cherish many dishes — too many to completely name here.
Ponce’s soups, for starters, coddle the mind and body with deep flavors and soothing textures. Beef-rice meatballs take center stage in the lightly seasoned albondigas, which is rich in carrots and squash as well. It’s been on the menu since the earliest days.
The chicken tortilla soup is a relative newcomer and no less outstanding. It features a boatload of shredded breast meat with a stacking of tortilla strips and avocado slices on top.
Plump and crepe-like are the chicken enchiladas suizas. They’re stuffed with manchego cheese and chunks of tender white meat. Crema and tomatillo salsa on top seal the deal.
Ground beef in Mexican cuisine is a rarity, and unfortunately synonymous with Taco Bell. Yet I prefer it over the chewy, shredded beef used in most family-run places. Ponce’s utilizes the ground meat for tacos and burritos, a carryover from when Ponce Sr. worked at Nati’s, but with added measures of cumin and oregano. Who can object?
I most recently tried the camarones ala diabla, an entree of sauteed shrimp that is probably the spiciest dish on the menu. The shrimp are bathed in dark-red chili sauce, which is quelled only slightly if you incorporate into each bite some of the rice, beans or sour cream on the plate. If you’re toting in Aunt Bee from rural Podunk, steer her instead to a puffy, golden-fried chimichanga or the delectable al pastor burrito stuffed with mildly seasoned pork and bits of juicy pineapple.
Ponce Jr. credits the restaurant’s sustained popularity to comforting dishes and generous portions. He advises those interested in attending the anniversary party to purchase tickets as soon as possible. They’re available only at the restaurant. The event, he adds, will cap off at 400 guests.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.