El Ranchero 4617 Wilson Blvd., Arlington 524-1010 Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. Prices: Lunch $1.50 to $5.75; dinner appetizers $1.95 to $4.95; entrees $5.95 to $9.95. Cards: Visa, MasterCard. No separate nonsmoking section.
By Joan Horwitt Special to The Washington Post
After running their Tex-Mex restaurant, El Rancho, in the Plaza 7 Shopping Center for nine years, Felipe and Rosario Granda sold the business and moved, enticed by a new location two miles away on Wilson Boulevard. They have their old menu almost intact and added a mere two letters to create the restaurant's new name, El Ranchero.
The new decor (the site formerly boasted a lawnmower repair shop) has familiar south-of-the-border touches such as black wrought iron grillwork, glazed earth-colored floor tiles, and roughly plastered white walls hung with colorful art and native Mexican crafts. Taped Mexican music plays softly in the background.
For the most part, El Ranchero serves good, homey food made of ingredients that taste of freshness and quality, down to the rice and beans. In its effort to please most of the people most of the time, the kitchen goes easy on the spices and provides each table with a fiery homemade hot sauce that can be added at the diners' discretion.
For starters, there is a crisp and flaky empanada ($1.95) stuffed with cheese or beef, a pleasant accompaniment to one of the Mexican or domestic beers. A margarita was only so-so, but still better than others I've tasted recently. The guacamole, studded with bits of tomato and kernels of corn, and with a nice infusion of garlic, would be more to my liking with less salt.
The entree listings offer a headspinning number of combinations, plus a section where one can mix and match one's own Tex-Mex trio of dishes for $7.95.
Delicately seasoned, finely ground lean beef is used in dishes such as the enchilada lightly coated with melted cheese and the hard-shelled chalupa topped with tomatoes, shredded lettuce and cheese. One tasty enchilada variation is stuffed with beef and chopped spinach.
The chicken fillings are especially good, as in the flautas special one evening ($9.50, or with beef $8.50). The moist and flavorful chunks of chicken, laced with garlic and tossed with sauteed onions and a hint of tomato sauce, are rolled in corn tortillas that are then briefly fried. Also good was another special, the two tacos campeche, in which chicken ($8.95) or beef ($7.95) is layered with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese in crisp, wavy-edged tortilla "bowls."
On Fridays and Saturdays, try the delicious seafood enchiladas filled with a blend of crabmeat, onions and tomato topped with a thin white sauce.
The Wednesday evening special, mole sauce with chicken, was a disappointment. The chicken was appropriately tender, but the sauce was thin and dominated by the flavor of chocolate.
Although the version of fajitas here is not as disappointing, it's not terrific either, with the strips of beef missing a good grilled flavor.
For dessert there is a sunny, yellow flan, rich and custardy, an acceptable strawberry empanada, and large, crispy sopaipillas with sufficient amounts of honey and cinnamon.
Service is swift and helpful. El Ranchero is a friendly neighborhood restaurant that may not electrify but will generally satisfy.