In a nondescript shopping strip, behind a generic glass storefront, wedged between a nail salon and a dry cleaners, sits Pansayena Mexican restaurant. It is so unassuming, so far off the beaten path, it seems almost like it is trying not to be discovered. It is the kind of place you might never notice driving by, the kind of place you might miss completely even if you were trying to find it. It is the kind of place you look at from the parking lot and think, “Surely, this can’t be right.”
Stepping through the front door is like stepping into another world. The bright, airy dining room is painted in broad swaths of orange, yellow, and blue. Hand-painted dishes adorn the walls. Hand-carved roperos house the service. Everything, from the windows to the menus to the plastic cacti on the tables, is impeccably clean. It is the most tasteful display of fake plants you are ever likely to see. The love and pride that its owners have invested in the place is apparent. It feels like someone’s home.
Pansayena –– a play on the Spanish phrase for “full belly” — is not Tex-Mex, and if you come here looking for bubbling troughs of yellow cheese and sour cream you will likely be disappointed. What the Arlington eatery offers instead are light, homemade Mexican dishes, prepared fresh and served with the kind of friendly intimacy only a family-run restaurant can provide.
My guest and I arrived at 7 p.m. on a weekday evening, and we had the place practically to ourselves. It could be a cause for concern to walk into such a cheerful space and find almost no other diners, but everything seemed so nice that we couldn’t help but be optimistic.
Chips and salsa, along with a small dish of stewed charro beans, are complimentary with the purchase of any entrée. The chips were fried in-house and served warm, and the salsa was perfectly fresh and seasoned with just the right amount of heat. The charro beans were just a few delicious mouthfuls of pinto beans and pork, cooked so well that any misgivings we might have had about our private dining experience quickly vanished.
A side of guacamole was prepared to order. Chunks of avocado, tomatoes, and red onions dressed with limejuice, it was simple and vibrant, the delicate flavors not overwhelmed with too much jalapeño or salt. A pork tamale ordered à la carte wasn’t quite as successful: Though clearly homemade and well-seasoned, the pork was stringy and dry.
Our server recommended the red chile chicken enchiladas, which arrived lightly sauced with a side of Spanish rice and refried beans. The chicken was excellent, and the sauce was subtle and smoky. The rice and beans were standard issue and somewhat disappointing, if only because everything else was so good.
The chicken mole enchiladas were even better. Generously smothered in a sauce of chocolate, peanuts, and chiles, the enchiladas were sweet, subtle, and spicy. It is the kind of dish you think about the next day when you start planning your return visit.
The gorditas, two fat tortillas stuffed with roasted peppers and fresh cheese, were a delicious no-meat entrée, though the filling would have been better piping hot rather than mostly warm.
Both the portions and the prices of our meal were modest, and it was refreshing and much-appreciated to get a dinner that was actually a sensible serving size. The superlative quality and well-balanced flavors were satisfying while leaving room for dessert –– and dessert at Pansayena is not to be missed.
The homemade cheesecake was luscious and not too sweet, nestled in a graham cracker crust and drizzled with caramel. Between bites of this superbly rich dessert, cleanse your palate with nibbles of the kitchen’s choco flan, a dense chocolate cake made from scratch and topped with a layer of flan custard. It is impossible to say which of these desserts was better. My guest and I agreed it is best to order at least one of each.
Pansayena doesn’t serve alcohol. Instead, try the homemade horchata, sweetened rice milk flavored with cinnamon, or the hibiscus agua fresca, a floral punch that tastes like an afternoon at the beach.
The service on our visit was, as you might expect, perfect. After all, there was nothing else for our server to do than to make sure we had everything we needed. We walked away satisfied in every respect but one: We never could figure out why the place wasn’t packed.
1826 N Cooper St, Arlington. 817-275-6800. 11am-9pm Mon-Sat. Reservations and all major credit cards accepted.
Red chicken enchiladas $6.95
Chicken enchiladas w/mole $8.95
Choco flan $3.99