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By Michael White
Arguably no Vancouver street betrays the local economic and social impacts of the pandemic as nakedly as the Granville Strip. The five blocks between Robson and Drake streets — especially south of Nelson — have been cosmically ugly for as long as most of us can remember. Not as existentially depressing as, say, Main and Hastings, but a top-rank urban eyesore nevertheless — dirty and charmless and seemingly disgusted with itself. To my knowledge, the City has never initiated any meaningful attempts to beautify it, presumably because there is no point: every weekend, hundreds of suburban dipshits swarm the Strip, to drink and to fight and to projectible vomit across its sidewalks and onto its storefronts. Or at least they did, until COVID-19 put the brakes to that, as it did to so much other human activity. (Of course, it didn’t stop all of them. Some dipshits can never be stopped their dipshitting.) And so, what was once merely unattractive is now both unattractive and barren — a debauched party from which everyone went home after trashing the house.
This is the ailing environment in which The Pawn Shop exists and, similar to countless other restaurants here and worldwide, is currently struggling to hold on. The Pawn Shop (or, to use its full unwieldy name, The Pawn Shop YVR) is doubly cursed in that it was purpose-built for the Strip and those who frequent it: young club-hoppers and nearby office workers seeking uncomplicated tacos, burritos, and tequila-based cocktails with which to either stoke the celebratory fires of a wild night out or to cushion the blow of workday drudgery. The room — heavily graffitied walls, high-top tables, dim lighting, not a single soft surface to absorb the din — is of a piece with the food. It isn’t most people’s idea of a destination eatery, but if you happen to be in the neighbourhood for the reasons most people come to this neighbourhood, in all probability it’s exactly what you want.
The Pawn Shop bills itself as “East L.A. inspired,” which is a bold claim — some of the most authentic and savagely delicious Mexican food to be found outside of Mexico is in Los Angeles communities such as El Sereno and nearby Boyle Heights. This isn’t that. (The Mexican, one block north, is closer to the mark.) What The Pawn Shop is, however, is a very good — occasionally excellent —purveyor of the sort of Mexican-American go-tos that make white people (this one included) very happy when alcohol is flowing and the day’s miseries are soon to be forgotten. The dining room, so crucial to the full Pawn Shop experience, is quieter nowadays, of course, due to reduced capacity and social-distancing measures — a stark contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder atmosphere of the Before Times. But our takeout experience (we tried both pick-up and delivery) revealed that their fare travels well, and is a great complement to yet another evening on the sofa watching whatever Netflix drivel best soothes your frazzled pandemic nerves.
The Pawn Shop offers 10 different tacos, five of which are “O.G.” (meaning traditional; three for $10.95) and the rest “bougee” (presumably meaning they have ideas above their station; three for $13.95). Carnita, Al Pastor and Chicken Tinga deliver what you expect and likely want: tender marinated meats; acidic counterpoints (cilantro, grilled pineapple, raw onion); small, pliable flour tortillas. We wish the salsa had delivered more heat (or that we’d been offered jalapenos to compensate), but the flavours were harmonious and the textural contrasts on point. Best of the lot was Crispy Avocado (one of two vegetarian tacos), in which the millennially beloved fruit is panko-crusted and deep-fried, its mild unctuousness melding beautifully with shredded white cabbage, pico de gallo, and salsa verde.
We were especially enthusiastic about our quesadilla ($15.95), an oversized land mine of starch and fat stuffed with beef brisket (one of six options) and, crucially, an immobilizing bog of melted cheese. Were we meant to receive sour cream alongside the (we repeat, too mild) salsa? We didn’t. But no matter, because we found enough additional ballast in the Big Bird Burrito ($15.95), the star ingredient of which is breaded buffalo chicken. This is roughly as near to bona fide Mexican cuisine as the Doritos Locos Taco — but fuck it. This, again, isn’t the point.
The Pawn Shop is probably best experienced as part of a large group, the better to explore the extensive selection of shareables from the appetizer list, which includes sundry other deep-fried things (cheese tots, jalapeno poppers, tempura wings, vegan cauliflower florets for that one virtuous person who tagged along; $9.95 and up) and, naturally, a nachos platter the size of a postmature baby ($14.95-$24.95). Half a dozen flavours of margarita, fishbowl drinks and “spiked slushes” do what they’re meant to do, as are an array of tall-boy cans from independent breweries. The Pawn Shop is doing its best to draw you in, including a generous Happy Hour featuring $4.95 drinks and $1.99 tacos (after a minimum initial order). If you have a trusted bubble to accompany you, this might be just the place to enjoyably kill a few hours before returning to the safety of your home. Or do what we did: Bring home a heaving bag of much too much, and assault your already abused digestive system with the leftovers at breakfast time. To quote a very wise song out of context: It’s not right, but it’s OK.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)