By now, Pasqual's qualifies as a Madison icon. Founded by Tim and Libby Guilfoil on Monroe Street as a funky little Southwestern salsaria, it has in its 23 years gone through several expansions, contractions, and incarnations. In 1994, a new Pasqual's opened in Parkwood Plaza, Middleton. Four years later came another Pasqual's, on Atwood Avenue next to the Barrymore. These two folded.
In 2000 Pasqual's was sold to Ben Roberts, a longtime employee. Soon a new Pasqual's popped up in Verona, and now there is a sparkling new Pasqual's in a sparkling new Hilldale Mall.
Phew. San Pasqual, patron saint of the kitchen, must be exhausted.
The Hilldale Pasqual's, bold, colorful and noisy, is as different from the original, homey, wooden-floored Monroe Street cafe as Macy's is from Ace Hardware on Willy Street. With its bold panels of pumpkin, brick red and sea mist green, its little bar, its theater lighting and noise-enhancing surfaces, it would be a perfect fit for any major airport. During dinner, I couldn't shake the urge to check my watch.
But the food? As far as I can tell, the menu hasn't changed since Pasqual's very inception. And it's exactly the same in each of the restaurant's three current locations. Pasqual's has always been careful to differentiate its northern New Mexico dishes from the ubiquitous Tex-Mex tacos, burritos, fajitas, tostadas and enchiladas. But in fact, these are exactly what you'll find at Pasqual's. Whether the chiles come from New Mexico or Texas makes little difference.
A recent Friday-night visit with three friends yielded a few surprises. One of us ordered one chicken and one chorizo enchilada but got two chicken instead. Another ordered a special of the evening, tilapia taco, but there was no tilapia taco. She also specified no cilantro, but received a taco loaded with it. With my tacos, I was offered either pinto beans or black beans. I chose pinto beans, then received both pinto and black beans, but no rice. And when we asked for a water refill in mid-meal, it arrived as we were getting up to pay the check.
On the plus side, all the food was fresh and well prepared. A large steak fajita burrito was especially good - tender strips of steak nestled with peppers, pinto beans and onions. I ordered two tacos - one chicken and one chorizo. When picked up, the bottom of my flour tortilla quickly disintegrated and dropped its contents onto the plate. And from then on, it was a gloppy mess. Nevertheless, the chicken taco was indeed well stocked with breast meat; its chorizo companion lacked any spunk whatsoever.
A better choice is a double taco, a soft flour tortilla smeared with guacamole, black beans or pintos, then wrapped around a crispy taco filled with your choice of meat (chicken, shredded beef, red chile pork, chorizo) or beans, all topped with vegetables, cheese and sour cream, with salsa on the side. This is a stout-hearted taco that will stand up to adversity.
Other menu items include black bean soup, chile verde and chile con carne, and strips of Jamaican jerk chicken breast wrapped up with black beans, lettuce and tomatoes, and served with a cucumber garlic yogurt sauce. There is also a children's menu and a weekend brunch featuring blue corn cakes, chorizo and eggs, and coyote toast (for which read "french toast").
While waiting for our table, we spent 20 minutes at the small bar, where we watched the barkeep pour margaritas from a tap, like beer. Lest you think these are from a commercial mix, not so! Pasqual's makes up a fresh batch every day, using fresh lime juice. In fact, the margaritas here are very, very good - and fairly potent. It's one of the restaurant's strong points. The tap beers include Lake Louie, Capital Winter Skal, Spotted Cow Wheat Lager and Great Dane German Pils. All good selections.
In the past few years, Madison has welcomed several new Mexican American restaurants that offer a wide sampling of the very diverse Mexican cuisine. It's not just tacos and burritos anymore. La Hacienda, on South Park Street, does wonderful things with chiles and steak. El Pescador, on East Washington, offers outstanding fish dishes, including my favorite dish of 2007, a marvelous seven-seas soup. And now we have La Mestiza, on Odana Road, with its Oaxacan dishes, including a beautiful achiote-marinated pork and a spectacular lamb shoulder simmered in chile pasilla salsa.
These new restaurants have raised the bar considerably for Mexican and Southwestern cuisine in Madison. Meanwhile, Pasqual's menu has remained static for years, still relying on the most familiar of peasant foods. So, while the new Hilldale space is bright, bold and hip, the menu is beginning to look a bit dated. But judging by our wait for a table on a Friday night, maybe familiarity is just what Madison is looking for.