Long Live Viva Pancho

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01/18/2011

Neighborhood: Times Square

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Long Live Viva Pancho

Viva Pancho is a Mexican restaurant in Times Square, on West 44th Street, just off Broadway. It’s verde awning reads, “Viva Pancho”/“Home Of the Sizzling Fajitas,” in chili pepper script. Neither quaint holdover from the old Times Square, nor modern day restaurant group vision, it could very well be situated in a New Jersey strip mall. I suspect most of their business comes from Red State tourists who are relieved by the unassuming nature of the exterior, and reasonable prices on the menu in the window.

The entrance takes you into the bar, which features a rectangular counter that’s pushed into the corner, and seems too big for the small room, like an unfortunate sectional in a Manhattan studio apartment. The walls are mirrored, I suppose, to give the illusion that the space is bigger than it actually is, while having the consequence of forcing you to see yourself sitting there. The other, better option is to look up at the muted soccer game on the TV hanging overhead. A single strand of colored lights dangles above the dining room archway, as though someone forgot to take it down after the party. During the day, the room is awash in anemic sunlight.

Though I’ve waited tables at Virgil’s, the barbecue restaurant next door, for a decade, I’ve only been to Viva Pancho three times. The first was shortly after being hired. Several of us, who had all started at around the same time, and were destined to become the next senior staff, went there as a group following a shift. Everything was new, and we’d yet to discover ourselves, or our regular spots, Jimmy’s Corner and St. Andrew’s, the other direction down the block. Though no one complained, it didn’t feel right. And we never went back. It was kind of like Freshman Orientation Weekend, and making out with the girl in your dorm, who would eventually ostracize herself for the stuffed animal collection overcrowding her bed. The memory is slightly fuzzy, and somewhat embarrassing, but mostly just weird.

On another occasion, while leaving work, I happened to glance in the window and notice a coworker and friend, sitting alone at the bar, smoking, and sipping a slushy red margarita. Impulsively, I reached for the door. He seemed uncomfortable with the encounter, like I’d caught him waiting on a tryst. I begged off when the bartender approached, and made a hasty exit, purposely avoiding looking back in the window as I hurried past. Maybe he was meeting someone. Or maybe he was embarrassed to be discovered alone in Viva Pancho. Or maybe, after a particularly trying shift, he didn’t want to be bothered; which was why he was there in the first place.

The last time was when a new-hire waitress, whose drink was margarita, felt like a margarita after a lunch shift, and convinced me, as we happened to be getting off at the same time, to join her. Said waitress always felt like a margarita after a lunch shift. Viva Pancho was her hangout. She headed a regular Viva Pancho clique. So I had no expectations. But what the hell, I figured. After an hour of our venting about dealing with the public, and two or three margaritas, or maybe it was two hours and four margaritas, I looked in the mirror and saw our miserable faces at that sad bar in the middle of the afternoon and knew that wasn’t going to work out.

Everyday, I walked past Viva Pancho without giving it a thought. On my way to work. And on my way home. Five days a week. For ten years. If I ever did consider it, it was in regard to how it had remained in business for so long. Restaurants come and go in this city. New Yorkers swarm a new place, like wolves on a fresh carcass, then abandon it to the vulture Bridge and Tunnel and tourists who pick over the bones until there’s nothing left. Yet, Viva Pancho had survived the revitalization of Times Square without so much as a facelift.»

Long Live Viva Pancho
Photo by Hobvias Sudoneighm

When the economy slumped, Viva Pancho took to marketing in order to foster business, in the form of an ancient Mexican man in traditional sombrero and sarape -- or, at least, a kitsch version thereof. He didn’t call out to you with a deal, in the manner of the Little Italy barkers. Or shove a menu at you, like they did on Theater Row. He simply stood there, the embodiment of Viva Pancho. For months, I passed without acknowledging him, and without receiving acknowledgement. Then one day, while on my way to work, we looked at each other.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hey,” I replied.

It was not a casual hello. This was a friendly greeting. One that recognized a relationship. He knew me, and I knew him, even though we’d never so much as exchanged a glance. The next day, it was back to our agreed upon anonymity, even if the dynamic was altered, a level of self-consciousness added. Everyday, I passed. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

How many of these stealth friendships was I involved in? There was the thin security guard who walked with a transistor radio tuned to NPR, seemingly always just ahead of me on the ramp to the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon. There was the older lady with hair like Marie Antoinette, and a penchant for paperback thrillers, who sat across from me on the ferry on Tuesday mornings. There was the middle-aged African American man in the skullcap from the 1 Train, who was quick to give up his seat for a lady. On the corner of Broadway and 44th, there was the man with the kabob food cart, and the man who sold New York street scenes and celebrity 8x10s, and the caricature artist, and the Chinese calligraphy artist, and the fortune teller, and the guys that hawked knockoff designer handbags from a sheet unfurled on the sidewalk, that they snatched up when the police approached. And the kids that asked, “Do you like comedy?” -- which counts, because they didn’t ask me. And Batman, and Spiderman, and Elmo and Cookie Monster. And, of course, there was the man in front of Viva Pancho who, one time, broke the fourth wall and said “hello.”

Sometime ago, while passing Viva Pancho, I realized the ancient Mexican in the theatrical Pancho Villa costume was gone. Maybe he ran into immigration problems. Or finally had enough of that oversized sombrero and gold lame sarape. Hopefully, he didn’t meet a worse fate. Most likely, since he wasn’t replaced with another Pancho, he’d been given the pink-slip. I guess the economy had recovered sufficiently, or the summer tourists invaded, or gone back to work, as the case may be. Or, perhaps, it was determined, in a Viva Pancho departmental meeting, that it was no longer cost effective (re: someone’s bonus was on the line) to employ a living, breathing Pancho. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll suddenly reappear. Viva Pancho.

Tom Diriwachter's new full-length play, "Age Out," runs to the end of January at Theater for the New City

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§ 22 Responses to “Long Live Viva Pancho”

  • Mary Floyd says:

    Love your story. I lived in NY in the fifties, and remember only once the whole time ever seeing the same person twice, except for co-workers, friends, waiters.. It must have been unusual for him, too, because we spoke to each other, like you and Pancho. I can still see him in my mind. .

  • Rita Quirino says:

    I tried calling the telephone number for VIVA PANCHO in NYC and it is disconnected. Can you tell me if they went out of business or if they relocated some where else in NYC? I was thinking about taking a trip to NYC and I always stop at VIVA PANCHO to eat while I’m there. It is sad if they did go out of business.

  • John Manley says:

    Went to dine there a few weeks ago and was astonished to find that they have closed. Just a hand-scrawled sign on the door that reads, “No longer at this location.” No indication that they moved. And everything inside appears to be torn up. Maybe the owner died? VP had been there for more than 20 years. Every so often, my mouth waters for their salsa, which was so-so on entering my mouth, but departed with a kick as it began its journey through my intestinal tract. The Burrito Supreme was great and the prices couldn’t be beat.

  • Ken says:

    Yes, same here. It was one of my favorite lunch spots–the chicken burritos were the best since I’d left San Francisco in the early 1990’s. In the good weather, I’d sit at the bar and chat with the bartender. During the holidays, I’d gone there for dinner with my daughters just before a Broadway play. We had very good food and a great time. I went back for lunch just a couple of weeks later and …they were closed down. Would be nice to know if they’ve relocated. I’d ride the subway to get to those burritos…

  • Phil P says:

    I’m devastated about this… I also, along with many others, had to suffer through the closing of Viva Pancho. For about 5 minutes, I stood at the front door staring at the “No longer at this location” sign in disbelief. Just the thought of having Sizzling Steak Fajitas again makes my mouth water. I tried different restaurants all over, but nothing compares to Viva’s fajitas (and Sangria of course).

  • Gersh says:

    Just found out they closed the hard way over the weekend by craving it and seeing the sign. This was my go to spot before shows or if I was doing just about anything in the Times Square area. I took out of town friends here, even did Valentine’s Day once. I hope it was a lease issue (they seemed to close early January from what I can gather) and they reopen somewhere else.

  • Kim M. says:

    For 24 years my husband and I had been going to Panchos. We saw wait staff come and go, but the food always remained delicious. We went a few weeks ago and come upon the dark windows covered with cardboard and the closed at this location sign. I was so shocked, I even rang the bell! We stood there in shock and disbelief for at least 10 mins. We held our wedding dinner with 20 friends and family here back in 1999 and it has just been a part of our lives. We have gone thru out 20’s, 30’s and now 40’s going to this restaurant. The fried ice cream or the sopapillas was always my choice at the end of the meal, my husband would enjoy a coffee or flan. That night we ended up at Olive Garden, and was just in a state that we didn’t enjoy ourselves and to add insult to injury, the price we paid at Olive Garden, we could have eaten twice at Panchos. We’re still not over it, and hope that they will come back one day. Pancho, you are truly missed!

  • flor/margarita says:

    please tell me if viva pancho is still open.thank you

  • Kim M. says:

    It’s closed. Went back just to check when was in area on Friday, and it’s over!!

  • Phil P says:

    May 5th…. Cinco de Mayo…. Still no sign of Viva Pancho…. :(

  • Dan says:

    Im a mechanical contractor who has been coming into NYC every 3 weeks for over 7 years from Northern New England, MA/RI area. Ive been going to Panchos since 2005. I recently went there in Mid June 2011. Yup, NO one there…but thee was a sign saying moved. Hopefully they will tell us all where. Mabye the rent near times square was getting too high/yuppified/gentrification? Anyway..negatives aside…their meals were always good and reminded me of the killer MEX food I had in Phoenix and near Vegas.

  • John Manley says:

    Been passing by there regularly in the very slim hope that Viva Pancho would reopen. Forget it. Their awning is still there, but there is now a sign attached to the window announcing that the owner is applying for a liquor permit, the purpose of which is to allow anyone who so desires to register any dissent with the State Liquor Board. Anyhow, the applicant is listed as O’Donoghue’s Restaurant & Pub, so looks as if the area is going to get yet another Irish pub; I think there are already two on that block, and 2 or 3 on 45th St. As for Viva Pancho, the website would have announced a new location if there was one. Hard to believe there could be so few NON-FRANCHISE Mexican restaurants in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.

  • christy says:

    What a bummer. My friend and I go there for their enchiladas and margaritas and we have a blast catching up. I took my boyfriend there on one of our first dates. I have a lot of good memories there. Such a shame it’s closed:(

  • Susan says:

    Such a bummer! Living in the Tri-State area and working in NYC the restaurant choices are endless, but Viva Pancho was our go-to place. We could go alone, with friends, and even for lunch with our kids. Fast service and great food. We too stood at the door in disbelief one day. They are missed. I wish the owner could read these.

  • The Riveras says:

    We’re still hopeful that they will reopen! I grew up in Hells Kitchen and my husband and I used to go there once a week while we dated. And 20 years later we still frequented Panchos with our kids. We loved their food and ambiance and staff. We never found any other Mexican restaurant that compared. When we went there this Spring we also stood in front of Pancho’s in disbelief. We kept reading the notice thinking we missed something. I also hope that they read these comments and reconsider opening up elsewhere. We will be there waiting!!!

  • The Capellas says:

    Years ago my husband & I used to have a date night every Saturday… a movie and then we would go to Viva Pancho for drinks and snacks. We became very close friends with the owner Antonio and the various bartenders. Antonio and the late Raul Ayaquica,one of the bartenders, even went to our wedding in 1997. We became so close that we visited each others homes. We lost touch when my husband and I retired and moved to Puerto Rico. We are also sorry to find out that the restaurant closed because we have very fond memories of that place. I even celebrated my son’s college graduation there. We have no idea what happened to Antonio but would like to find out. If anybody had any news, please let us know.

  • Michael says:

    I can’t believe that they have gone. I live in London and have been eating at Viva Pancho on my last night in NY for the past 10 years – it became a tradition. I know some of the other restaurants in the area have closed and reopened somewhere else and i’m praying this is the same!!

  • Melissa says:

    So disappointed to find this restaurant closed. My husband and I have been to viva pancho on all our trips to NYC. Hopefully for the locals it re opens somewhere again someday.

  • Nappy says:

    Loved this place. Great sangria.

    Got the same thing everytime I went. Diarrhea.

  • Rudy says:

    I too came here hoping someone might report a sign of life for Viva Pancho. I went there so often for their delicious food and reasonable prices that when a friend of mine and two of our friends went there to celebrate his birthday on June 30, 2010, they gave us many free drinks. Whenever I’d walk in they’d recognize me and say hello – and I’m not only from out of town, but a very young college-aged boy from New Jersey who could only afford to give fine, but not extravagant, tips. It made me feel like a New Yorker when they would remember me.

    My last couple of memories are having frozen drinks (delicious – I can’t remember what kind of drink as I’m not a drinker) with my boyfriend before Roger Waters’ “The Wall” concert on October 6, having a snack and drinks with a stranger from Italy and my friend Levi in late November after seeing a Mariah Carey “performance,” and then having a little dinner with my friend Levi before seeing “Promises Promises” on December 29. That was the last time I saw the place.

    I also went there on August 15 with my boyfriend after having very happily met Elaine Stritch and gotten her autograph, which we admired at the bar over drinks.

    In fact, the first time I ever went to Viva Pancho was in November or December 2000 after seeing Lily Tomlin perform in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” My mother discreetly pointed out a gay couple on a date to me – the first time I ever saw a gay couple, being so young. Years later, indeed, I would find I was gay and end up going on dates there with my boyfriend.

    In fact, on June 22, 2010 I was meeting a friend from the Internet who’d finally come into town (he lives down south) and his crew of friends, as well as a friend from New York and *his* crew of friends. I simply told them all to meet there, even though it was a complicated group of people, all thrust together at Viva Pancho due to me, and I was unavoidably the last person to show up. What a night! But when we all got together we had a wonderful time and enjoyed ourselves. If I ever had to juggle that many people again near Times Square, I don’t know where I’d send them to now.

    To make a long story shorter, I greatly miss their friendly wait staff, reasonable prices, excellent food and warmth, both literal and figurative. Sombrero, which is a few blocks over off 8th Avenue, is a penny-pinching joke, and Mi Nidito, near the Gershwin Theatre, is decent, but has none of Viva Pancho’s charm, hospitality or reasonable prices.

  • Phil P says:

    Viva Pancho…. now replaced by another Irish pub….

    Just what we needed in the area… the 12th Irish pub. Great. ;(

  • Jose Rivera says:

    Grrrreat….

    How I miss my friends and the food…. Still can’t believe that they are gone…

§ Leave a Reply

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