Restaurant Mexico had built quite a following over the 42 years it was in business in downtown Tempe. When it closed in August 2019, many regulars were disappointed. The owner, Carolina Chavarria, wanted to close the restaurant a few years earlier, but her husband encouraged her to keep it open before he died. Now, in her 80s, Chavarria finally shuttered the iconic Mexican restaurant on Mill Avenue. When the news came that Restaurant Mexico would soon be no more, many patrons approached head cook Angel López. If he opened his own restaurant, they’d follow him. He decided to take the dare.
It’s between services and Mr. Pancho is quiet. It’s an intimate space, fitting 26 people at the most. The restaurant’s interior is clean and bright. López is seated at a table with Carolina Chavarria’s brother.
Angel López, a native of Sinaloa, Mexico, moved to the United States at age 17. A year later, in 1988, he started working at Restaurant Mexico as a dishwasher. In about four years, he was cooking food. Then, he moved up to the head cook position, where he remained for the next 30 years till the restaurant’s closure. The need for employment, plus his knowledge and skill in cooking Mexican food, prompted him to open his own restaurant.
“I could not afford the Tempe location for my first venture. Like everything else, I have to crawl before I can walk, before I can run,” López says. He relocated to Mesa and opened Mr. Pancho Mexican Food on September 11. The name Pancho is a nod to his late father-in-law.