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Foreign Exchange

School's out, and my husband is delighted. Not because his wife has stopped muttering about kids misbehaving in class. Not because she has a smile as permanent as ink on her face. But because of what she has found: Her cutting board. Her grill pan. Her coupons.

That's right: I'm cooking again. I have the time to shop for food, the creative energy to prepare it, the tolerance to clean up afterward. And suddenly, almost as a bonus, I have enough money to begin paying off my credit card bills.

This year, when I was busier than I've ever been (and not incredibly happy about it), it was easy for me to rationalize eating out -- or ordering in -- nearly every night. Part of my job, I said: It's research. Or: The free hour or two I gain is worth the expense. Or: By the time you lay out the bucks for all the ingredients involved in making a complete meal, you might as well just buy the meal already prepared.

Truth is, eating out eats into a budget faster than a new baby. With the amount we've spent on restaurants this year alone, we could have spoiled a kid rotten. We weren't exactly frivolous, either, jaunting to Chef Allen's or Norman's every night. Instead we followed the nebulous rules of budget dining, avoiding pricey fare and looking for comfortable places that simply strive to replicate the experience of eating in one's own (or a friend's) dining room.

And we found plenty of these eateries. The problem lay in the fact that the line between budget dining and fine dining has blurred, to the point where even the most modest dives have begun charging over-reaching prices. (To reinforce my point: In a recent Miami Herald, budget reviewer Kendall Hamersly cheered an Italian joint whose main courses range to $14.50, while fine-dining scribe Geoffrey Tomb lauded an Indian restaurant where the specialties top out at $15.95.)

Tiled floor and tablecloths notwithstanding, El Ranchito, a 30-seat Mexican restaurant and tiki bar on the block of 26th Street that connects Collins Avenue to the sands of Miami Beach, emanates casualness. (Come to think of it, that's the only block of 26th Street.) But entrees approaching sixteen bucks for house specialties and twenty for a steak-and-lobster combo belie the empty spots on the walls where the framed pictures have been removed (or have fallen off), the two cobwebbed holes in the ceiling (one a gaping two-by-three feet, caused by a leak from the store next door's air-conditioning), and the fact that you can't get a frozen margarita because the restaurant's only blender "got burnt."

I'm not suggesting that a restaurant shouldn't turn a profit. But it should be able to turn on all the ceiling fans. The year-old El Ranchito couldn't activate the one above us; a chunk of plaster from the ceiling was perched on a blade and surely would have been flung into someone's enchiladas had the motor been running. The hole, says chef-proprietor Ely Ramirez, is in the process of being fixed by the people who caused it. But combine no-fault dilapidation with a lack of necessary attention to the restaurant's interior and to the comfort of the patron, and at these prices it really doesn't matter how decent the food is. Which is a shame, because the home kitchen-trained Ramirez can turn out some awfully good chow. Had I been paying seven or eight bucks a sturdy plateful, rather than an average of twelve or thirteen, I might not be complaining.

Blame higher prices in general on the proximity of tourists. Ramirez gets referrals from the nearby hotels on Collins Avenue. Or attribute them to what the Mexico City native is trying to accomplish: ambitious recipes that differentiate themselves from the Mexican staples served at other neighborhood establishments, including El Rancho Grande, the off-Lincoln Road spot Ramirez opened in 1992, then sold to her brother Jose Ortiz three years ago.

Some of these dishes are quite successful. Empanadas rancheras, made with corn tortillas, looked like deep-fried little tacos. Three to an order, these starters were delicious, topped with sour cream, queso blanco, chunky guacamole, and shredded iceberg lettuce. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite make our waitress understand that we wanted to try all six varieties (cheese, cheese and jalapeno, cheese and potato, ground beef and potato, shredded beef, and shredded chicken), and so wound up with two each of the nonvegetarian types. A duo of superior hot sauces, one a zingy red pepper, the other a more vinegary green tomatillo, was a great complement, especially to the milder poultry empanada.

Tortilla soup was another appetizing way to begin the meal. The flavorful, tomato-based broth, just a bit piquant, was lightened with sour cream and laced with strings of queso blanco. Strips of yellow corn chips retained some of their crunchiness, like cereal in milk, even as they absorbed the stock. Gratis baskets of these crisp, freshly fried chips were also perfect with a smoky, spicy salsa.

Queso mexicano was somewhat surprising. From the menu description, we expected a bowl of melted Monterey jack cheese, smooth like fondue, accented with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. Instead we received a stretchy, gooey, white cheese blanket, a pizza without the crust. Though we appreciated the mellow flavor when the substance was paired with homemade flour tortillas, the dish was awkward to share.

If you're set on a burrito, you'd best check out the menu's vegetarian category, because that's the only place you'll find it. Still, El Ranchito's bean burrito was a double pleasure -- two soft flour tubes overstuffed with refried pintos, tomato sauce, sour cream, and cheese -- and at $7.99 a terrific buy, the kind of cash tag I'd anticipated in this joint. Another Mexican standby, enchiladas suizas, comprised deep-fried corn shells generous with shredded chicken and topped with the restaurant's standout tomatillo sauce and melted cheese. A ramekin of refried beans sprinkled with crumbled queso blanco, and a scoop of yellow rice with peas and carrots -- both of which accompanied most entrees -- completed this baked casserole.

El Ranchito was out of fish on the Saturday night we visited, which knocked four dinner choices right off the menu. Craving seafood, we settled for a simple shrimp dish: six large ones basted with butter and garlic and grilled. These were pleasant (if a bit overseasoned), served with rice and an iceberg-tomato salad. Chiles rellenos en nogada were a more inspired delicacy. Green bell peppers filled with savory picadillo (ground beef with raisins, almonds, potatoes, peas, and carrots) were egg-battered and deep-fried and sauced with a contrasting mixture of sweet cream and crushed almonds. Altogether a hearty dish with an unusual texture, richer and more addicting with every bite.

Other more substantial main courses failed, however. Conchinita pibil, a particular favorite of mine, was a particular disappointment here. Tender hunks of pork, shredding from their sour-orange marinade, were so salty as to be inedible. And although a steak dish featured a delicious pasilla chili sauce accented with onions and boiled white potatoes, the three slices of steak were uncutably tough. The corn and flour tortillas brought alongside were soft and warm, fortunately, and were filling when rolled around refried beans.

Dessert may be El Ranchito's truest bargain. A pastry shell filled with fried ice cream was soggy and grainy, as if it had been made hours before and then refrozen, but flan de vainilla was accomplished, and tres leches, a delight with a shot of negrito (espresso), was smooth and delicate enough to warrant ordering a second helping. (Which we did.)

I waxed nostalgic at El Ranchito, whose freshly prepared, savory Mexican standards reminded me why El Rancho Grande (where prices have also climbed in recent times) used to top my Mexican dinner list. But unless the cost of eating at both places begins to hark back to those glory days when really cheap eats actually matched the on-a-budget atmosphere and service, I can't afford to be a very frequent dinnertime visitor.

El Ranchito
131 26th St, Miami Beach; 535-6332. Lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. (Open Sunday from noon to 10:00 p.m.)

Empanadas rancheras
$3.99
Chiles rellenos en nogada
$11.99
Grilled shrimp
$13.99
Tres leches
$2.50


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