An important thing to understand when you visit Pancho’s Gourmet To Go is that Pancho isn’t kidding about the “to go” part. The core of the operation is a small kitchen tucked inside a neat, well-kept Shell station in the tiny town of Pecos. There’s no seating inside and not much outside, either: a couple of wide, plain benches that face the gas pumps. The food comes in Styrofoam containers or wrapped in foil, and the forks, spoons, and knives are made of bendy white plastic. Once you’re handed the goods — which you order at the same counter where you pay for gas, Slim Jims, chainsaw oil, and whatever else — your best bet is to either tailgate or drive someplace. You’re in Pecos, after all, so you’re not far from many excellent picnic spots. If it’s too cold, park your vehicle and enjoy some road food that is definitely a cut above average.

I first heard about Pancho’s a few winters ago from my friend Dave, an avid outdoorsman who lives near Glorieta, and who, like me, enjoys finding offbeat places to eat that seem unique to Northern New Mexico. I’d been in Pecos dozens of times over the years — before and after outings to hike, fish, snowshoe, cut Christmas trees, or gather firewood — and somehow I didn’t know there was a gas station in town with a foodie vibe. Dave decreed that Pancho’s serves the best breakfast burrito in the Santa Fe area, and he gave me half of the one he bought to prove it.

The burrito made a convincing case for Dave’s grandiose statement. Labeled the Big Big Breakfast Burrito on Pancho’s big menu, it consisted of hot (but not too hot) red chile, excellent pinto beans, and ample melted cheese (jack and cheddar) wrapped inside a big, warm flour tortilla. He ordered a handheld version, and all that sloppy, tasty stuff stayed together surprisingly well once you cut into it. Is it the best burrito around? I have no idea, but eating one of these is certainly a good way to start an active day.

Pancho’s was opened in 1999 by Frank “Pancho” Adelo, who developed the menu himself, aiming for what he calls “the basic good cooking you would find in regular homestyle restaurants.” He puts care into the ingredients. The beef, for example, is purchased from a Texas-based operation called HeartBrand, which raises grass-fed Akaushi cattle, one of the four breeds grouped under the name Wagyu. The beans come from Moriarty, home of the Pinto Bean Fiesta. The green and red chile are sourced in New Mexico, of course. Both the red and green sauces that Pancho’s serves are vegetarian (no chicken or beef broth) and gluten free.

Pancho’s has a loyal following, and be warned that it can get crowded in there. After customers place an order, they basically have to bounce on their heels and wait in the narrow lanes of floor between the station’s crowded shelves, counters, and refrigerator cases. The kitchen is kept whirring by two prep cooks (Frances Larsen and Jason Vega) and two head cooks, both of whom have worked with Pancho for years: Ruth Dean and Norma Guzmán.

The menu is broken down into several jovial categories: Northern New Mexican Fare, Pancho’s Burrito Emporium, Burgers and More (the “more” includes chicken tenders, a loaded hot dog, and a “PecosPhilly” cheesesteak), Deli Sandwiches, Breakfast All Day, Salads, and sides like guacamole, homemade potato chips, and grilled onions. Pancho’s will sell you bulk amounts of several of the items they make, including carne adovada, and they offer a “flexible catering” service for large groups. They have a 14-foot smoker for preparing beef brisket, and this time of year they ramp up production of two seasonal favorites: tamales and biscochitos. Starting the week before Thanksgiving and extending through the holiday season, they make both pork and calabacitas tamales. They also bake two kinds of biscochito: with lard and without.

On the first of two recent visits, at lunchtime, a friend and I tried the New Mexican combo plate and the Borrachera Bratwurst, a Pecos-style variation of the bratwurst-on-a-bun that’s basically the state food of Wisconsin. The combo plate included a soft, cheesy enchilada (made with a corn tortilla and smothered generously in green chile), a beef enchilada (the almost-sweet taste of the grass-fed beef really came through), a chicken taco (a weak point in the mix: the chicken was bland and dry), and beans, rice, and flour tortillas, warmed and wrapped in foil. I laid on plenty of the chunky, fresh guacamole Pancho’s makes and went to town. The bratwurst was pretty good — not up to Cheesehead standards, maybe, but I’d order it again. The sausage had a smoky test from the grill, though the white-bread roll was a little bland.

Trip two was for breakfast, and with Dave in tow, we ordered his favorite burrito — still up to par — and an offering called the Brilliant Breakfast Enchilada. This is a big meal: corn tortillas smothered under scrambled eggs, shredded potatoes, red or green or both, with your choice of bacon, ham, or sausage. The eggs were soft and fresh, and the bacon — thick-cut and meaty — was excellent.

Pancho’s is a good place to refuel. I’ll be heading back to the Pecos area after Thanksgiving, with a permit to cut pine swags for Christmas wreaths. That’s a lot of work. I may just have to go there twice. ◀

This content was originally published here.