By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Chihuahua" is a tricky word. It defines both a teensy dog and the largest state in Mexico, and, depending upon which linguist you ask, translates to either "dry and sandy land" or "place where sacks are made." The reason I bring up Chihuahua at all is because this is where Lucilla is from, she being the talented, recently installed chef at El Ranchito. Or at least that's what a dining tipster had told me -- claimed to have gotten this info straight from the owners' mouths.
In fact Lucilla may or may not be from Chihuahua, and she may or may not be recently installed -- said owners, from Argentina, would not give out any information, even after numerous assurances that I was not selling advertising nor working undercover for the American government. Unfortunately besides exhibiting an unhealthy degree of paranoia, they were rather nasty about the whole matter.
Maria, the restaurant manager, suggested, after some prodding, that Lucilla was from Guerrero, and had been at the restaurant since opening day eight years ago. Then Maria admitted that she wasn't sure about the info she had just given, as she herself was new. So I am unable to tell you much background on El Ranchito, other than that this eleven-table Mexican restaurant (owner and manager also refused to say how many seats there are) has been sitting in relative obscurity on 26th Street, just off Collins Avenue, for quite some time.
The meaning of the word ranchito, and I admit I'm taking a guess here, is "ranch" or "little ranch" -- or maybe "little rancher." The design of the dining room reflects none of these; it looks like any other sombreros-on-the-wall neighborhood Mexican joint, and the menu offers a familiar foray into the comfortable culinary landscapes of such places (nachos, fajitas, quesadillas, chimichangas, enchiladas, and so on). Some renditions are less than spectacular, but there is a consistent, cooked-to-order freshness inherent in practically every dish. This means of preparing food is appealing, but can lead to lengthy delays in the kitchen. Then again, the laid-back informality of El Ranchito goes hand-in-hand with the lax approach to service. Those diners seated around us didn't seem to mind the wait, though maybe the emptied margarita pitchers on their tables had something to do with it -- a few glasses of this elixir has indeed been proved to obliviate time. A basket of thin, crisp, greaseless corn chips with mediocre salsa is another antidote to watch-checking. Not wearing a watch works too.
Meat is not very plentiful in Mexico, which might explain the parsimoniousness of pork in Ranchito's tamales. There was certainly enough to eat -- too much, in fact, for a starter (the tamal is traditionally served as a main course). The two long tubes of creamily steamed cornmeal came coated with mild red sauce, zigzags of sour cream, and a side of refried pinto beans (with soupy texture, which is the way Chihuahuans like them -- coincidence, or a vital clue to Lucilla's birthplace?).
A main course of tacos al pastor is a roll-your-own affair, a trio of soft corn tortillas and morsels of tender, piquant pork tenderloin tossed with pineapple and onions. The sweet and spicy contrast was invigorating and clean, a side cup of guacamole contributing a bit of creaminess. Refried beans accompanied the tacos; yellow rice did not, but comes with most other entrées. Main course prices are corraled between $9.99 and $17.99.
Regardless of what you order at El Ranchito, be certain to ask for a side of chipotle sauce. It is homemade and exceptional, an explosion of smoke and fire capable of enhancing just about anything ... except, that is, for the devilish chili verde in which chunky pieces of pork are simmered in a jalapeño-spiked green tomatillo sauce that already packs more heat than Vicente Fox's bodyguards. Ay, Chihuahua!