Hillsdale has had a traditional, family-style Mexican restaurant on Capitol Highway for as long as most locals can remember.
In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of child diners got their first exposure to Mexican cuisine and culture at Ponchos. But the future looked grim around the turn of the century when new owners took over. Within two years the restaurant, called Mucha Grande, was on the ropes.
But the tradition was preserved for the children and grandchildren of those earlier Southwest Portland patrons. The Ochoa family from Colima, Mexico, by way of Orange County, California, took it over and turned it around.
As the family prepares to host a weekend of Cinco de Mayo festivities, Bryan Ochoa, oldest son of owner and founder Alonzo Ochoa, speaks with gratitude of the family that opened Ponchos, just the second Mexican restaurant in Portland. The first was Ponchos on Northeast Sandy Boulevard — and he even thanks the owners who almost blew it.
“They’re out of business now but they opened the gates for us so we could do our own thing and we’re very grateful for that,” Bryan said. “In Hillsdale, dad wanted to create something long term.”
Alonzo Ochoa, his wife Elsa, and their four sons took some major steps forward in 2018 and look ready to keep expanding. There is now a Casa Colima in Vancouver and one in Tualatin. By the end of 2019, Bryan says they hope to have another new restaurant open in Happy Valley. For 2020, they’re looking at Ridgefield, Washington.
What patrons in those new locations will find is a version of the vision the Ochoas brought to Hillsdale in September of 2003: an extensive, often-adventurous menu, really friendly servers, unexpected versions of the margarita, a lively clientele and authentic Mexican art, music and furnishings.
“My dad is always really big on telling us ‘We’re not a five-star restaurant,'” Bryan said. “The keys to our restaurants, in my dad’s way of thinking, which we’ve incorporated into our culture, is that we’re not the fanciest of restaurants, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give that level of food and service. We don’t try to go for super fancy. We go for the best quality, the highest quality we can get and our customers appreciate that.”
He gave an example.
“Most Mexican restaurants, when they offer carne asada, they use any kind of beef. We like to use only outside strip steak, which sells for $9 a pound. It’s a very expensive steak that we offer at a reasonable price and our customers really like it,” Bryan said.
Then there are those margaritas served in 48-ounce glasses.
“My dad and I looked at what Voodoo Donuts was doing and how people really like the weird stuff,” the satisfied mixologist said. “So we had a few weird ideas of our own a few years ago. We created the Jalapeno Cucumber and the Habanero Margarita. The Jalapeno Cucumber is our number-one selling margarita.”