Penca Promises Traditional Mexican Food

January 23, 2013

by Teya Vitu

In Mexico City, the enchilada is not smothered with melted cheese. Neither will it be at Penca, Patricia Schwabe’s idea of a Mexican restaurant.

“It’s going to bring back some of my traditional roots,” said Schwabe, both whose parents are from Mexico City.

Patricia Schwabe plans to serve real Mexican food at her new Penca restaurant.

Patricia Schwabe plans to serve Mexico City style Mexican food at her new Penca restaurant.

Penca, 50 E. Broadway, next door to Providence Service Corp., is expected to open toward the end of January, in time for the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase.

“It’s bringing back some of the very traditional Mexican foods,” Schwabe said. “We use ingredients that people just ignore here.”

The Penca kitchen works with nopales, a prickly pear that will be incorporated in salads and served as a side dish. You will find aselga, a type of spinach.

“We’re going to use a lot of citrus in the salads and sauces,” she said.

She plans to offer the flavors of central and southern Mexico, particularly from Mexico City and the surrounding regions of Oaxaca and Toluca.

Patricia Schwabe is no newcomer to the restaurant business. She’s the owner of Tooley’s Cafe, across from the Lost Barrio warehouses on South Park Avenue. Right next door are the offices for Peach Properties, the property management and development firm that Ron and Patricia Schwabe own.

Penca will be the rare Downtown restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner starting at 7 or 8 a.m. (Schwabe’s still evaluating the opening time) and continuing until “late,” which she reckons as likely 10 p.m.

“I’m going to bring the corn cakes from Tooley’s,” she said.

The coffee is from EXO Roast Co. on 6th Avenue. Santa Teresa Tile Works on 6th Street made all the plates and bowls.

Baked huevos will also be on the breakfast menu.

“Mexican food is very fresh. People do everything from scratch,” she said. “Fresh beans are cooked every morning. We have fresh salsa.”

Lunch will have a variety of soups and salads.

“Soups are very important in Mexico,” she said.

Lunch will also offer enchiladas and chile rellenos.

“We’re going to have chile rellenos made with chile poblanos,” Schwabe said. “If you’re having chile rellenos in Mexico, 99 percent of the time it’s chile poblanos.”

Dinner will once again have chile rellenos plus fish, molé and short rib cooked in chile pasilla sauce.

Nearly all the furnishings, including this wood wall, are recycled from construction projects.

Nearly all the furnishings, including this wood wall, are recycled from construction projects.

“We’re going to have a fish dish cooked very simple – steamed in a banana leaf, very traditional,” Schwabe said.

That fits right in with the Penca name. Schwabe landed on the Spanish word for the rib of the agave.

“We played with names and names,” she said. “It’s not a trendy new word. It’s a very old word. If you’re talking about penca, you’re talking about the earth in Mexico. There is a very famous romantic song ‘clave en la penca.’ A boy wrote the name of a girl on a penca. I wanted something simple, something very reflective of Mexican tradition.”

Penca truly is Patricia Schwabe’s restaurant. Her fingerprints are everywhere. She does not have an executive chef. The menu items are basically her suggestions.

“It’s based on the food I want to create,” she said. “It’s what I thought through and worked with the kitchen staff. You work it and work it until it’s done right.”

Along with the menu and name, Schwabe also had her eyes on the interior look.

“I’m pretty controlling and specific,” Schwabe said.

Interior designers Miguel Fuentevilla and Sonya Sotinsky at FORS Architecture+Design won’t argue that. They get credit for the interior design but the interior is heavily influenced by Schwabe.

“Patricia is the theme,” Sotinsky said. “It’s more about her and what she loves.”

The central focal point at Penca is the floor-to-roof rough wood plank wall setting the kitchen off from the bar and dining room. FORS convinced Schwabe to take the wood wall all 24 feet to the ceiling.

“A lot of the things we used are from items she got from other projects,” Fuentevilla said. “We’re using the things she had in a new way.”

Peach Properties specializes in acquiring and fixing up century-old properties, such as the warehouses at 1 E. Toole and 119 E. Toole Avenue. The Penca property dates from the 1920s, and the Schwabes wanted to build onto the building’s historic bones.

“A lot of the wood was repurposed from different buildings,” Schwabe said. “A lot of it was stacked on Park Avenue for years. Ron just brought the wood. ‘We have all this wood. Why don’t you just use it here?’”

At first, Patricia envisioned a standard 9- or 10-foot wall between the kitchen and bar, but Fuentevilla and Sotinsky chimed “Let’s go all the way up,” and thus the 24-foot wall to the roof.

The dining room partitions are made with boards, pipes and brush rollers from a former glass factory.

Reclaimed Peach Properties wood also made the tables and the 2-inch-thick bar top, which sits on a dark gray concrete base.

“The tables allow the food and the plates to show,” she said.

Anybody who knows Tooley’s will have a sense where Patricia Schwabe’s coming from. She opened Tooley’s in 1988 and she spent her entire days there for “years and years.”

These days, though, Schwabe figures she’s at Tooley’s no more than 10 hours a week. That’s because her docket is full with leasing duties for Peach Properties. She sold the four condos on the top level of 44 E. Broadway next door to Penca; she’s looking for tenants at 210 E. Broadway (next to Thunder Canyon Brewery); and she close to making announcements for 1 E. Toole and 119 E. Toole.

“Tooley’s was my first love for running a restaurant,” Schwabe said. “It’s a small place where people feel welcomed. People have come for a decade. It’s a hole in the wall with history.”

Peach Properties co-owns the Penca building as well as the adjoining Providence Service Corp. building. Providence indeed leased what is not the Penca space a couple years ago.

Schwabe and Providence CEO Fletcher McCusker discussed how to make best use of the Broadway frontage. But Schwabe and her controlling tendencies couldn’t stomach the thought of landing a tenant who would “do something that doesn’t go with the history.”

The only way that would happen was if Schwabe took the space herself. Penca is not Tooley’s, but the spirit of Tooley’s is not far away.

“I think the food is great at Tooley’s,” she said. “It’s like a home kitchen. It’s very casual. The goal and the challenge is to create a menu for Penca as inviting as Tooley’s.”