Editor’s note: West Memphis may not be on most people’s radars as a destination, but those who live there know its charms. A series of profiles by West Memphian Amber Carswell certainly charmed us, so much so that we’ve made them our Valentine’s week love letters to our neighbors across the river.
Photography by Breezy Lucia
“West Memphis?” questions literally everyone when I tell them where I live.
But some will then nod knowingly. “Pancho’s,” they conclude with a smile, as though proximity to cheese dip was the determining factor in my choice of residence.
The primary thing to know is that the first Pancho’s restaurant was flattened by an 18-wheeler not even a year after opening.
Pancho’s came about in 1956, when West Memphis was only in its twentysomethings as a city. Not that there wasn’t a history of a settlement—native American burial mounds attest to its earliest civilization before the Spaniards came and went, their Old World diseases carrying the destructive power of fleets of wildly careening 18-wheelers. A Dutch immigrant eventually established a settlement in 1797, renaming it “Hopefield” from the Spaniards’ “Campo de la Esperanza.”
Hopefield—initially described as a “healthful, moral and intelligent” community (ah, the good old days) before gamblers and reprobates on the run from Bluff City law trickled over—existed until the Union occupation of Memphis during the Civil War. Confederate sympathizers across the river sabotaged ferry transport, took potshots at passing ships and caused general mayhem while sheltered on the western bank of the Mississippi. So, in 1863, the Union peacefully evacuated Hopefield and proceeded to burn every last inch of it to the ground.
It wouldn’t be until 1927 when West Memphis, population of 300, would incorporate and literally pave the way for the fleet of semi-trucks that would come to define it and the history of our oldest, most beloved institution: Pancho’s.
To the uninitiated (are you out there?), Pancho’s Restaurant feels, looks and tastes as though a rather sheltered American boy of some means went on a family trip to Mexico, was introduced to authentic Mexican cuisine for the first time in his life and then, upon his return, decided to create a restaurant dedicated to his experience. This, in fact, is the actual story of Pancho’s. Can you imagine me going to Japan and coming back to start up my interpretation of a ramen stand, replete with chicken noodle soup and Sailor Moon re-runs? Kampai!
This cannot and arguably should not be done anymore, but Pancho’s remains as unchanged and bizarrely anachronistic as my late grandad’s jokes about the Irish.
They say hipsters embrace the innocent forms of irony; friends, I have found our Mecca. The beer is cheap, too.
In a time where we hipsters also prize “authentic [insert cultural group here] cuisine,” Pancho’s sticks to its childlike dream of bringing to the Mid-South the Old West that never was. The dishes on the menu like the Shrimp Veracruz casserole and the Pancho Verde (a roasted green pepper stuffed with spiced ground beef and topped with cheddar cheese), are entrees you’ll find nowhere else. Compare the menu to one from circa 1960 and you’ll see the same combinations of guacamole salad, cheese and onion enchiladas, tamales with chili (not chile) and, of course, their classic cheese dip.
It’s not queso. It’s cheese dip.
Let me be clear. I love this food in all its gut-bomb glory. I order the Acapulco when we go (beef taco, Pancho’s verde, cheese and onion enchilada, chicken enchilada and tamale with gravy, served with Mexican rice or refried beans for $11.99) and eat for days. I love sliced black olives and a glob of sour cream adorning the fresh iceberg lettuce.
And I love one other thing about Pancho’s: On the corner of this legendary site is a sign that says, “Hey West Memphis! There’s a new way to get around,” under which gleams a new rack of Explore Bike Share bicycles. This is an unusual choice for a town that boasts exactly zero bike lanes. We don’t even have sharrows around here, the arrows painted on otherwise normal roads to remind automobiles that other modes of transportation have as much right to the road as anyone. I do not bike in West Memphis. West Memphis, by virtue of its shortsighted 20th century rebuild, is not made for cycling, or really any kind of pedestrian other than the semi-trucks which cruise through it. If its most beloved institution was flattened by an 18-wheeler, I doubt a cyclist would even register as a speed bump.
But I can park there and bike to work downtown on the peaceful, protected Big River Trail. It is like a lifeline, a thread of hope to old Hopefield, that this place might yet value its human residents as much as its dehumanizing industries. When I pedal back to the west side, the cares of the day relived, reworked and finally released through the pedals of my bike, Pancho’s waits to greet me with unpretentious arms and a free side of cheese dip.
3600 East Broadway Avenue
West Memphis, Arkansas 72301
Amber Carswell is an Episcopal priest who works in downtown Memphis. She lives across the river in West Memphis with her wife, two dogs and an unruly backyard garden. @carswell.amber
Breezy Lucia is a Memphis transplant from Kansas City, Missouri. She’s a queer photographer and filmmaker living in Midtown. When she’s not using a camera, she’s baking bread or making fermented beverages. @breezylucia