By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Business owners had warned Ponce Meza in the late 1960s not to open a restaurant in the heart of Kensington, believing that it would fail in a neighborhood that didn’t support much culinary activity at the time. But Meza proceeded anyway, taking with him the experience he gained from working as cook at Nati’s Mexican Restaurant in Ocean Beach.
The venture panned out. And 47 years later, Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant operates consistently to a full house, pretty much from the moment it opens its doors in the morning until closing them at 10 p.m. on most nights.
Even on a cold and rainy Monday evening last month, the wait time for a table was 40 minutes. Or on a recent Friday lunch, both dining rooms and most of the bar had filled to capacity before the clock struck noon.
Meza’s son, Ponce Jr., said the draw is “comfort food with good portions,” a simple formula that he’s upheld since his father retired 15 years ago.
“My dad still pops in sometimes to chit chat with the longtime customers, many of whom love his original chile rellenos and chicken enchiladas,” he said.
For this customer, the ground beef tacos and burritos hold sacrilegious appeal in the face of shredded beef versions served in all other Mexican establishments — except for Nati’s, from which Meza adopted the recipe. He’s since tweaked the seasoning with added measures of cumin and oregano.
The crispy quesadilla, too, is a Nati’s carryover involving a bubbly layer of cheddar or Jack cheese (or both) on a thin, fried tortilla sporting the fragility and lightness of filo pastry. Pair it to a sturdy margarita harboring a loose pour of Cuervo Gold tequila, and you begin to understand why Ponce’s has become wildly contagious in a town brimming with stiff competition.
Décor plays into the restaurant’s allure as well. Since its remodel in 2003, the main dining room came to include a “wall of women,” which captures numerous paintings of senoritas, some of them humble, others seductive. The framed works were acquired mostly at flea markets. Those that appeared non-Mexican were touched up to look Latina, Ponce Jr. said.
Several items have been added to the menu over the past several years such as the simple, brothy chicken tortilla soup, standard fajitas, and chicken enchiladas suizas, which are the best I’ve had anywhere. Plump and crepe-like, they’re stuffed with tender breast meat and manchego cheese, and topped with Mexican crema and tomatillo salsa.
Equally noteworthy is the carnitas cooked in lard, oranges and Mexican Coca- Cola. What I especially like about the preparation is that the pork isn’t flash-fried before it’s served. The result is slow-roasted soft meat with its juices fully retained, and sans the greasy finish.
On my last visit, I tried the shrimp tacos containing crispy cabbage and robust chipotle cream sauce, which surprisingly didn’t upstage the sweet, delicate flavor of the shrimp. It’s the closest thing you’ll find here to a luxury taco, with the exception of the adobada tacos stuffed with guajillo chile-seasoned pork, cilantro and pineapple-avocado salsa.
The menu otherwise spotlights traditional dishes: chorizo sopes with nopales salsa, chimichangas, tilapia tacos, dressed-up quesadillas, tamales, and the like. A couple of burgers are also in the offing — the “guero” and “Mexi.” Both are topped with a chile relleno, although the latter contains a slightly bigger patty served on an oblong roll with lettuce, tomato, mayo and guacamole.
Chilaquiles verdes are relative newcomers to the breakfast menu. But I’ve defaulted regularly to the classic huevos rancheros with standard ranchero sauce, if only because of the creamy refried beans served alongside. The frijoles appear on most plates, although only in my morning visits have they sported a crispy top layer. Whether intentional or not, I found it appealing.
As a dining anchor to the neighborhood, Ponce’s has become a charitable force in the city by donating annually to elementary schools and the Mid-City Little League. It also takes part regularly in Dining Out for Life, which raises money for the San Diego LGBT Community Center’s HIV/AIDS services and prevention programs.
—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 firstname.lastname@example.org.