At age 77, Sofia DeLeon still cuts the steaks by hand at the restaurant she and her late husband, Francisco, began roughly 48 years ago.
“Every time she tries to teach somebody else, they just don’t seem to get it,” says her daughter, Eva DeLeon, who co-operates Don Pancho’s Tex-Mex Café in Alliance with her mother and brother Joe DeLeon and sister Dorothy Leone. “She takes the time to do it right because she cares.”
It’s that commitment to quality that has served as a hallmark at Don Pancho’s at 2105 W State Street since its beginnings in Lake Milton in May 1970.
The DeLeons, who had followed Francisco’s parents from Texas to Ohio in 1969, opened their first restaurant on state Route 534 in Lake Milton next to the Sinclair Gas Station. They named the restaurant El Pancho’s, after Francisco’s nickname “Pancho.” The name eventually changed to Don Pancho’s, reflecting Spanish’s more formal version of “Mr.”
It was the first time the couple had owned a restaurant. Francisco, who had attended school through the sixth grade, had held various jobs in Texas, including shearing sheep, hauling watermelons and working at Armour’s Meat Packing while handling merchandising on the weekends. Sofia never attended school and was busy raising what would be the family’s seven children.
But the couple quickly gained experience in restaurant operations by cooking and waiting tables for Francisco’s parents at their restaurant in Ravenna called El Charro.
Over the years, the DeLeons would open multiple businesses in and out of Stark County including a restaurant in Brimfield (1971), Greensburg (1977) and New Philadelphia (1994).
“His intention was always to get the restaurants up and running and then to resell,” said Eva about her father who died in August 2008. “He always wanted to have one for the family to work at.”
The family’s Lake Milton restaurant was moved to 745 W State Street in Alliance in 1972.
“It wasn’t easy (opening a restaurant in Alliance),” recalled Eva, who along with her siblings grew up working in the business. “Back then, Mexican food was not the thing. Any foreign food wasn’t in. Everybody was still on home-cooked meals.”
But after a few years, Alliance-area residents began to catch on and became regulars.
In 1981, the DeLeons purchased the 30-room Alliance Motor Inn at the southwest corner of Main Street and Union Avenue and moved the restaurant there.
“That was a learning experience,” Eva said. “It was such a cool location, but you had to be open seven days a week.”
Eva said her father had no plans of selling the motel-restaurant until a drug store operator inquired about purchasing the property. He sold it in January 1997 and moved the restaurant to its current location roughly six months later.
“Mom said when he came to Alliance, he saw this building and he loved this building,” Eva said. “He said he was going to own the building someday. And he did.”
The current Don Pancho’s is the only restaurant that remains, Eva said.
While it’s smaller than some of the previous locations, its dining area still can seat 100 people. Its banquet facilities can accommodate 200 guests.
The restaurant, now known for its giant chair that sits in its lobby, also boasts the Pancho’s Tex-Mex Southwest Outfitters and Gift Shop with home decor, apparel, jewelry and more.
Don Pancho’s, which employs an average of 37 people, is open six days a week (closed Mondays) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its expansive menu contains roughly 200 breakfast, lunch and dinner options that span Mexican and American cuisines.
“We’re Tex-Mex flavor because we’re from Lubbock, Texas,” Eva said. “That’s what sets us different from a lot of other restaurants. We have flavor.”
“Everything here is still made here,” Eva said. “Even down to the hamburger. We grind it by hand.”
As the restaurant approaches its 50th anniversary, Eva said she hopes to pass the business along to her nephew or another family member.
“All of us children are still in the area,” she said. “Dad always wanted to keep the family close.”
2. Pancho Dinner, which features enchilada, burrito, chalupa, beans and rice.
3. Cactus Carnitas Dinner, which offers steak tips grilled in onions, tomatoes and poblano hot peppers and served with beans, rice and flour tortillas.