When Sarah Penn, owner of longstanding Ravenna restaurant Pair, approached Janet Becerra about Becerra’s pop-up, Pancita, taking up residency in Penn’s restaurant, the chef almost turned down the offer. “No matter how many years of experience I have,” Becerra says, “as a woman and a woman of color, there’s always that feeling of imposter syndrome.”
In August, the duo announced that Pancita at Pair, the five-month residency of the modern Mexican concept, would be permanent — it’s now just called Pancita — demonstrating the success of the unconventional partnership and showing off an alternative model of restaurant transitions. Penn continues to own and run the restaurant, including a beverage program whose wine list may soon include a few more bottles from Mexico. But the concept and the kitchen remain entirely in the hands of Becerra and her hot pink tortilla press, with Penn serving as an experienced backstop as needed.
Pancita began in 2020 as a pop-up exploring Becerra’s heritage and bringing creative and modern touches to traditional dishes, from wild mushroom-topped sopes to miso-caramel-drenched chocoflan. Since culinary school, she felt conflicted over the exclusion of her family’s Mexican cuisine from the Eurocentric kitchens she learned and cooked in. Other than three months staging at Mexico City’s Pujol, her professional career included little Mexican food. She left her job as chef de cuisine at Eden Hill Provisions (now Big Max Burger Co.) shortly before the pandemic began. “I just wanted to make food that meant something to me,” she says.
She taught herself how to nixtamalize corn to make her own masa, the labor-intensive process required to make truly great fresh corn tortillas, as well as other Mexican foods, such as tamales, tetelas, and tlacoyos. “I grew up in a house where my parents worked full-time; there’s no way my mom would ever have the time,” Becerra says. But visiting her grandmother in Mexico and watching her grind the corn on the metate, she wanted to make sure those skills weren’t lost. “[Pancita] was a way for me to do that. To reconnect,” she says. “And hopefully share that to other Latinx people here.”
Last year, when the bar that had hosted most of her pop-ups declined to continue them, she went in search of a new host. A mutual friend introduced her to Penn, who invited her to do a pop-up, and then, almost immediately, to take up residence.
Penn opened Pair nearly 20 years ago with her ex-husband. In 2009, they opened a second restaurant, Frank’s Oyster House and Champagne Parlor. But when the pandemic hit, much about the restaurants — and her life — changed. The pair shuttered Pair indefinitely to consolidate staff during the takeout-only era, then ended their business partnership (their personal one had ended years earlier). As Penn struggled to find a chef committed to sticking around, she concluded that she needed to approach the empty restaurant differently.
“There just aren’t that many chefs of high caliber that are excited to come in and do someone else’s project,” she says. Rather than try to find a chef to execute her restaurant, she needed to help someone else build their vision. She had the space, the equipment, and more than two decades of experience. She no longer wanted to follow the traditional top-down model. She wanted a partner.
Becerra hesitated to accept the residency at Pair. She always assumed any restaurant she opened would be in the South End, closer to where she grew up in Kent, and where the customer base is more diverse. (Ravenna has long been a largely upper-middle-class white neighborhood.) She wasn’t sure that her pop-up would translate to a sit-down format with a wine list.
Penn had no such qualms. “I fell in love with her food,” she says. “I could tell she was the total package. She had a level head; she would be able to head up a crew.”
Becerra said yes to Penn’s proposal despite her qualms because it meant near-complete erasure of the risk normally involved in opening a restaurant. Becerra didn’t have to take out staggering loans or wager a family home. She just had to do what she had already proven capable of: grind corn, make tortillas, and serve incredible dishes.
Reservations quickly filled up.The Seattle Times called Pancita’s suadero taco one of the best in the state. She no longer schleps her molino across town, instead leaving it on the counter, under a shelf lined with a dozen Cambros holding various types of dried chiles. Five months after the residency began, both women remain enthusiastic about the benefits of the symbiotic partnership. “I was having fun doing the pop-ups, but it’s nice to be able to breathe a bit.” says Becerra.
Her mission has shifted from moving gear to moving people. “She did not expect to be in Northeast lily-white Seattle,” says Penn. “That was hard for her, she was like, ‘I want to try to attract as many people who look like me as possible.’”
Becerra’s point was proven when she saw customers eat her tacos with a knife and fork. “Why did we make these tortillas so nice?” she asks, laughing. “So they can fold it!”
She has since made the tacos smaller and cheaper, to discourage sharing and encourage guests to eat them by hand. But she chose to keep Pancita at Pair permanently because that was the exception, not the norm. She successfully built a community of customers that come from all over the city for her singularly excellent tortillas and the chicken mole that fills them, a lesson that proved Pancita a partnership, not a mentorship. “That’s been good for me,” says Penn. “She showed me deeper ways of doing that.”