By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald, Holy Smoke (3/17/18)
Francisca Aleman or “Panchita,” as she is affectionately known to family and friends, counts herself a blessed person. Twenty-two years ago she left Vera Cruz, Mexico, alone, seeking a better life in the United States.
“Coming to the United States gave me hope, and I was happy to work here to help my family in Mexico,” she said.
She is also proud of what she has accomplished here – becoming a U.S. citizen and opening a Mexican restaurant, Panchita’s, on South Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans.
It wasn’t always easy, but she learned a work ethic at a young age. She said her family – she is one of six children – was poor, and when she was as young as 6, she would wash dishes for other families to earn money.
When she came to the United States, she landed in California first. Then, she heard of better opportunities in New Orleans and moved to Louisiana.
Aleman said she cleaned houses for more than a decade before she was able to realize her dream of opening a restaurant with her brother, Cesar Delgado, eight years ago. They follow in the footsteps of her homemaker mother, who was a good cook, and several aunts, who owned restaurants in Mexico.
“The recipes come from my mom,” Aleman said. “My mother forced us to cook so we would learn.”
Aleman said she always liked to cook “because it was a tradition. My mom’s sisters owned two restaurants in Mexico City and one in Vera Cruz.”
She said she would visit her aunts often as a child. At around age 10, she spent summers with them and worked in the restaurant, where she washed the frijoles (beans) in preparation for cooking, made salads and salsa (one she continues to make at Panchita’s in the tradition of her aunts) and washed dishes.
Some of the most popular dishes she serves at her restaurant are inspired by them and include shrimp, fish or vegetable enchiladas, nachos, fish Vera Cruz, red and green salsas, tamales in banana leaves, poblano peppers stuffed with chicken, fish, beef or cheese.
The non-meat recipes are especially big during the Fridays of Lent, she said. While the regular menu doesn’t change during Lent, she adds several seafood specials including shrimp tacos, shrimp quesadillas, shrimp burritos, camarones (shrimp) de doble or mole de ojo (with garlic).
“If you are not eating meat, you are eating vegetables,” Aleman said. “However the people want it, I fix it.”
Vera Cruz traditions
Aleman said when she was growing up in Mexico, her family followed the strict Lenten guidelines of not eating meat on Fridays.
“We ate tuna and egg tortas,” she said, adding how tortas are Mexican po-boys. On Easter Sunday, she recalled a meal that included papaya marmalade, buñuelos (potato and flour that would be fried in oil) and Hojuelas (flour, anise and water) that also was fried and then topped with sugar and cinnamon.
She mentioned that Vera Cruz is famous for serving fish a variety of ways. Panchita’s serves ceviche (fish and shrimp with lime) and makes homemade, freshly squeezed fruit juices (mango, tamarindo, watermelon, pineapple, orchata, Jamaican and cantaloupe),
Aleman said her Catholic faith is important to her and one she continues in the United States as a parishioner actively involved with Blessed Francis Seelos Parish in Bywater. She donates food to the parish as well as the archdiocese’s Hispanic Apostolate in Metairie. Aleman has two children; her oldest, Natalie, 23, is studying medicine, and was an altar girl. She and husband Francisco, who have been married 24 years, also have a second daughter, Zayda, 19, in college.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.