Thursday, September 4, 2003
Driving down Reservation Road in Marina, it''s hard to miss the yellow billboard with the cowboy and "El Rancho" on it. And you won''t want to miss the meal deals inside at this neighborhood supermarket''s butcher counter.
The menu above the counter lists items in Spanish only, but the names roll off the tongues of El Rancho''s customers, who resemble a mini United Nations. Isidro Guzman, the store manager who has worked six-day weeks at El Rancho for 11 years, says, "The whole neighborhood eats here."
My recent perusal of the Lonely Planet''s Whole Food Mexico gave me the idea to order a torta sandwich ($2.25) with carnitas (deep-fried pork). My husband Laurent chose a carne asada (lime-marinated steak) ($4.99) from the "Ordenes" section. We took our order slip from the counter and walked around the store to pick up a liter of Dasani water ($1.39), Jumex mango nectar ($.69), and some Mexican sweet rolls ($.25 each). The sweet rolls look like oversized croissants and buns with sugar and frosting on them. You serve them to yourself on a platter and the cashier bags them.
We paid for everything at the cash register, picked up our order, and sat down at one of the kitchen tables surrounded by fresh catfish in a freezer; brown-skinned yuccas and plantains in the produce section; and chips to our back. Four-foot star piñatas dangled over our heads. The butchers chopping up cuts of meat provided free entertainment.
My pudgy torpedo-shaped torta had a slightly crunchy crust and received a slathering of guacamole and shredded lettuce to cradle an inch-thick portion of deep-fried pork carnitas. The fresh, sturdy bread never buckled under the pressure of the plentitude of pork. The salty pork made me wish for a beer, but you can only buy that in the store for take-out; no beer-drinking on the premises.
I skipped dinner after eating this filling lunch. Laurent could not finish his equally large portion of carne asada that came in bite-sized morsels inside a Styrofoam box. It tasted great in the corn tortillas along with the guacamole, a truly spicy hot sauce, beans, and rice. El Rancho doesn''t stint on tortillas. Laurent got five with his order.
We both liked the moist sweet rolls and agreed that one would have been enough for the two of us.
The portions at El Rancho made several visits necessary to sample more of the menu offerings. On my next visit I tried another torta ($2.25) with chicharron (deep-fried pork skins). If you like rich food that will fill you up for a day, this is definitely the sandwich for it. The different filling didn''t change the price of the torta. This principle operates for the whole menu board: The listings under the tacos, for example, can go in burritos or sopes.
Sopes ($1.50) are thick tortillas with turned-up edges that resemble three-inch pie crusts. I tried one with lengua (beef tongue). I thought the sope was doughy, but the tongue boiled with tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers merits a return trip.
Another El Rancho specialty I tried is chile verde, which I ate in a taco ($1.25). This pork selection is a little more low-cal since the meat gets boiled. El Rancho adds green onion, bell peppers, and a few jalapeno peppers; the end result makes a satisfying meal. I loved the chile verde, but it did get my tortilla soggy. El Rancho places a second tortilla around the first, but I think eating chile verde in a burrito would be a wiser choice, too.
Burritos ($2.25) come in 5-by-3-inch proportions. For my filling I chose adobada, spicy pork. The combination of spicy adobada and beans had my waistline crying for mercy--two can easily share an El Rancho burrito.
The tamales ($1.19) are some of the fattest I have ever seen. They stay moist thanks to being wrapped up in plastic, but I thought there was too much dough around the tasty pork filling. I also tried the chicken (gallina) meal. For $3.99 you get the chicken plus all the sides that Laurent had with his carne asada. The salty chicken was dry, though.
Mild seasoning predominates at El Rancho. If you want more kick to your torta, Isidro suggests asking for some jalapeno slices with your order. I would also ask for more of the spicy salsa with the dinners. I plan to return and sample other tempting items like the costillas (ribs) dinner, the camarron (shrimp) and pescado (fish) fillings for burritos, quesadillas, and enchiladas. Along with the food, I liked learning all the Spanish words on the menu. Once you start ordering things in your own Spanglish like the locals, the vocabulary will stick in your memory just like El Rancho''s food will stick to your costillas.
El Rancho Market
346 Reservation Rd., Marina. 384-5151