The lack of serious competition alone could elevate El Rancho to best-in-its-class status, but fortunately there's a lot to like about this Mexican restaurant, tucked away in the Plaza Seven Shopping Center.
Foremost, El Rancho is proof that there is more to Mexican cookery than tacos and guacamole. While we expect the usual Tex-Mex inclusions on the menu (and there are plenty, judging from the combination platters available), there are several very good dishes one doesn't often encounter in the run-of-the-mill, south-of-the-borderesque establishments: pollo en mole, chicken sauteed with vegetables and a sauce of ground almonds, raisins and aromatic unsweetened chocolate, and carnitas, seasoned cubes of tender browned pork served with a sauce redolent of cilantro.
Happily, the garishness we've come to associate with these establishments is not evident at El Rancho: burnt-orange chairs and cream-colored walls decorated sparingly with Mexican handiworks are found in the modestly appointed dining room. A bar in the rear turns out so-so margaritas, appropriately served straight-up.
Most attractive is the fact that you can eat well without spending a lot -- entrees average $7 to $8 and only two are over $10.
There are but four appetizers listed, and three of those are of the dip-and-chips variety (guacamole and chile con queso dips, cheese or bean nachos). The fourth offering was the best, however -- a deep-fried, flaky empanada filled with a choice of cheese, beef or chicken.
Surprisingly, the thing this place does least well is with the simplest fare, such as tacos, which were adequate but no better than the fast-food variety. Similarly, an appetizer of guacamole dip appeared one night as a dull green pablum-like concoction and was served refrigerator cold. On subsequent visits it was better as an entree accompaniment.
Some of the best fare is reserved for weeknight specials: if it's Wednesday, it must be pollo en mole, and Friday night features enchiladas del mar (two tortillas stuffed with a generous portion of crab meat, blanketed in a complementary white cream sauce).
Aside from the standard listing of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, there are good, though somewhat flabby chili rellenos (green peppers stuffed with meat or cheese) and attractive chalupas (boat shaped shells filled with beef, grated cheese, lettuce, olives and guacamole).
El Rancho's menu doesn't delve into Mexico's vast array of seafood dishes -- as far as I could tell, there's but one token item, the crab-stuffed enchiladas -- but the offerings are varied enough to interest those who might complain of the sameness of dough- or shell-encased entrees, good as most of them can be. Several chicken and steak dishes are offered, and one in particular, steak a la Veracruzana, is especially appealing, a good-sized piece of sirloin with just a hint of gristle, cooked as requested and smothered in a mix of sauteed tomatoes, onions and sliced avocado.
Considering the vibrant array of ingredients used -- bright green limes and avocado slices, shiny red tomatoes, yellow cheeses and corn tortillas -- it would be difficult not to serve up a colorful platter, and El Rancho does just that. This place also knows how to season and make the most out of side dishes like rice (fluffed with scallion bits) and the soothing refried beans that come with main courses.
Fans of Mexican cuisine have a reliable friend in El Rancho. And if it's true that you get what you pay for in restaurants, this place is a steal.