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Bring Out the Pinata

Pancho's Mexican Restaurant celebrates 50 years.

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It was a humble beginning.

In 1956, when the first Pancho's Mexican Restaurant opened in West Memphis, Arkansas, the floors were packed dirt. The restaurant's centerpiece was a live tree salvaged during the building's construction.

Fifty years later, the dirt has been traded for earth-tone tiles at the West Memphis location, but according to Pancho's president, Brenda O'Brien, the food hasn't changed a bit. Two other full-service dine-in locations are operating in Memphis as well as a fast-food-style Pancho's on Perkins.

Since the precise anniversary date is unknown, Pancho's is celebrating 50 years on Cinco de Mayo (May 5th). At the downtown Memphis location, there will be a drawing for a vacation for four to Disney World, and Q107.5 will present a Cancun getaway to the person with the most stamps on his or her passport.

Diners who don't win a trip can still escape to the Yucatan via the Latin sounds of Los Cantadores. Pancho Man, the restaurant's life-size plush mascot, will make an appearance too. The band and mascot will also entertain at the Pancho's in West Memphis during lunch hour.

When it first opened, Pancho's was one of only a handful of Mexican restaurants in the Mid-South. The idea was conceived when O'Brien's brother, Lewis Jack, visited Mexico after his high school graduation.

Soon after the business was up and running, tragedy struck.

"The original Pancho's was built between the two highways leading into Memphis," says O'Brien, whose father, Morris Jack, built the first restaurant in 1956. "One night, a truck ran through the restaurant, and that was maybe nine months into us opening."

The restaurant was destroyed, but the Jacks were determined to reopen. Already owners of several businesses in West Memphis (a dry-goods store, a nightclub, a liquor store, a truck stop, and souvenir shop), they weren't going to let one unruly 18-wheeler crush their dreams.

The Jacks ran a '50s rock nightclub ("the largest nightclub in the South") called the Plantation Inn at the site of the current West Memphis Pancho's location.

"We tore down the nightclub and built the new Pancho's," says O'Brien. "Then we built a new club, the El Toro Lounge, behind it. We were moving from '50s rock into the disco era, so we made the El Toro Lounge into a disco."

So there was a time when West Memphians could have their tacos and boogie the night away without ever leaving the Jacks' property.

Though they're still serving up tacos and beans and rice, Pancho's most distinct item is the signature cheese dip. There are only four restaurants nationwide, but the dip is available in supermarkets in nine Southern states.

"The cheese dip is addictive," says O'Brien, giggling.

O'Brien inherited the company after her brother died in 1992 and scaled back the number of Pancho's locations. During his reign, Lewis had expanded Pancho's to at least 30 locations.

"I was more focused on straightening up and making things right and not just spreading it out everywhere," says O'Brien.

However, O'Brien did enlarge the retail marketing, like cheese dip, salsa, and salad dressing sales in supermarkets.

Those products, as well as all the food served in the Memphis and Arkansas Pancho's locations, are prepared at a central commissary located in Memphis.

"The recipes are all the same as the original ones," boasts O'Brien. "We have added a few new items, though."

Also like the original, every Pancho's has a "Lover's Lane," a row of booths situated near stained-glass windows and separated by Spanish-style archways, each lit by a glass oil candle.

"Some people have gotten engaged there," says O'Brien. "Before we moved to Memphis, people used to come over [to West Memphis] and have a nice, quiet dinner. There were a lot of happy times for families."

When asked her fondest memories from the past 50 years, O'Brien says she can't think of any one story because there are so many.

"One of the beautiful things about being in business 50 years is that every generation has a story," she says. "Everybody has been to Pancho's."

Even Elvis ... or at least his people. O'Brien says Elvis used to send people to pick up food from the old Pancho's on Bellevue near Graceland.

"People in Memphis and the Mid-South have supported us and have been very good to us," says O'Brien. "Likewise, I think we've done our best for them."

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