Praise the Mexico City street food gods: pambazos have landed in Long Beach. The chili-dipped sandwiches are a puro chilango invention that’s somewhere between a torta and a French dip – if your French dip was loaded with chorizo y mashed papas and the grilled bread dunked in a smoky guajillo sauce instead of salty beef jus.
A trip to the sprawling, sinking, effortlessly cosmopolitan city this summer left me addicted to the stuff, which makes as good an afternoon snack for the working class as it does a post-drinking soak-up for tourist gabachas like me. After all, their presence on nearly every sidewalk-adjacent cart – look for the stacks of crimson-colored, ovoid bread — makes it hard to abandon the satisfaction of quick-service paradise for the fleeting comforts of a pricier, sit-down meal.
Despite the proliferation of regional Mexican food here, though, pambazos are notoriously elusive in Southern California. Only a few places in Orange County and L.A. even attempt to make them (see the Mexican-in-Chief’s most recent discovery in Anaheim) and even fewer of them are worthy enough of being considered good representations of the style. (A more common but less-satisfying find is the torta ahogada, a century-old Jalisco tradition that drowns a carnitas sandwich in vinegary chile de arbol sauce like a wet burrito.)
Not so at Villas Comida Mexicana in Long Beach, where the pambazo is a weapon of nostalgia for the owners themselves. The 6-month-old Wrigley-area taco shop is run by Juan Flores and his mother, who moved back here from Mexico City a few years ago and desperately missed the food.
Pambazos are listed among carne asada burritos and chicken tacos on a menu that at first glance makes the place look like any other local taqueria. But scan deeper and you’ll see that some of the taco fillings are uncommon finds like picadillo, and there are knife-and-fork platillos like the cheesy kitchen-sink stir fry known as alambres (all tortillas and sopes are made in-house too).
Since Flores and his family once ran a restaurant that specialized in affordable multi-course meals (aka comida corrida), there are weekly rotating specials that pull from their recipe book of over 100 dishes. One week, it might be green mole. Another, cochinita pibil. Recently, Villas was serving albóndigas – hand-formed herbed beef meatballs in a savory tomato reduction. Always, the sauces are superb.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Villas also nails the pambazo, its flavor rooted in the rich spicy sauce that permeates the sandwich’s bread before it’s grilled. Piled with the traditional chorizo y papas, two kinds of cheese (Oaxacan and cotija), crema and lettuce, it’s six bucks of desmadre.
Villas’ version is already one of my favorite sandwiches in town. I also love that it references the street-side birthplace of the original: truly portable and wrapped in foil like a good burger, it can be eaten as you walk down the street or packed up for a trip back to the office. There might not be a pambazo cart on every corner in Long Beach like there is in Mexico City (hell, finding a decent taco truck is hard enough), but until I return to Chilangolandia for another guajillo-dunked stuffed sandwich, you can find me at Villas.
755 W. Willow St., Long Beach, (562) 296-0003
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.