The sun hangs high over Beltsville on a mid-October afternoon, radiating enough light to make even these semi-industrial streets look inviting. But the spell is broken the moment I step inside El Ranchero y Sus Mariachis, a strip-center taqueria where it feels as if a solar eclipse has dimmed several corners of the place.
I plop myself down at a hard, fuchsia-pink booth, not far from where a lonely guitar hangs on the wall. My mood seems to darken right along with the environment, and when the server approaches, I start interrogating her about El Ranchero’s masa production. Are the corn tortillas made in-house? The gorditas? The sopes? My tone drips with skepticism.
The answers come quickly: Si! Si! And Si!
The waitress soon drops off an elegant ivory plate overflowing with fresh masa-based bites: two tacos, one ferrying cubes of lengua, or beef tongue, and the other crumbly pieces of flaming-orange chorizo; a supersized gordita shell crammed with carnitas, onions, white cheese and cilantro; and a fried, flat sope topped with barbacoa, shredded lettuce, avocado and a slice of what has to be the last good tomato of the season.
Is it my imagination, or did God just shine a light onto my shadowy section of El Ranchero?
Give Beltsville another gold star. This Maryland suburb — the honoree of the $20 Diner’s best cheap-eats destination earlier this year — continues to be a rich resource for bargain diners with a sense of adventure. El Ranchero is merely the latest example.
The Mexican restaurant is a mom-and-pop operation whose owners hail from Toluca, southwest of Mexico City. In pre-Hispanic times, the indigenous people called the place Nepintahihui (or “land of corn” in English), a nod to the region’s sizable maize production. With every bite of tortilla at El Ranchero, then, you’re reminded of the crop that has sustained countless generations in Toluca, even through the industrialization of the area.
But even without the history lesson, the gordita here makes my mouth water whenever I think of it. The specimen, approximately the size of an old 45-rpm single, features a thin, crackly masa armor, the perfect accompanist to the star ingredient, which too often gets swallowed up by these Pac-Man-like shells. The filling options include the usual suspects: lengua (cooked to a slightly chewy, not lush, state), chorizo (whose spice and acid funk remind me of the famous Valladolid sausages in the Yucatán) and barbacoa (a rather bland pile of shredded beef). No matter which you select, though, the filling will find its voice inside that shell, provoked by a spoonful of pushy tomatillo salsa, available on demand.
The gordita remains my preferred masa-based delivery system. The thin, crisp sope — essentially the base of a gordita without its golden lid — will suffice if you’re looking to limit your masa intake. The corn tortillas prove too thick and rigid for my tastes, the drill sergeant of Mexican wraps. The huarache, stuffed with a microscopic layer of refried beans, deservedly brings up the rear: The oblong length of fried flatbread was too flaccid to provide much support to its poor toppings.
If a friendly server tries to steer you from the chicken mole — she’ll say it’s too sour for her tastes — don’t listen. The sauce, as black as crude oil, blankets the bird so thoroughly you may have no idea what’s actually underneath that dark lava flow. I’m not sure a CT scan could see through this mole. Fortunately, the sauce registers on the palate just fine, its bitterness balanced with sweetness and spice. It will animate even dried-out chicken, like this one.
El Ranchero prepares a carne asada that fulfills the promise of this marinated steak dish, which is so routinely fumbled in lesser kitchens. A generous portion of skirt steak winds like a river across the length of my plate; the meat glistens, even where the grill has charred the flesh into something dark and desirable. This dish does exactly what it’s designed to do: Turn a tough, unattractive cut into a succulent steak. The accompanying rice is textbook, too, light and fluffy and studded with small shavings of carrot.
The best introduction to El Ranchero’s charms may be its enchiladas verdes, a trio of fresh, toothsome corn tortillas wrapped around succulent chicken and topped with a green sauce that supplies both tartness and a ticklish heat. I’d skip the posole rojo, though, an underwhelming bowl of chewy pork and undercooked hominy that can be salvaged only with its side plate of pungent add-ins. The garlic shrimp should be avoided at all costs, with its nasty dipping sauce that tastes like a Thousand Island dressing mixed with toothpaste.
Despite its name, I never encountered any live bands (nor a farmer or rancher, for that matter) at El Ranchero y Sus Mariachis. An Internet jukebox regularly fills the bare-bones space with music, sometimes by musicians south of the border and sometimes by Madonna. If that sounds like an odd coupling — it sounds like America to me — consider one more mash-up: the Cubano torta at this Mexican restaurant.
I ordered the sandwich the day after Fidel Castro died. It was less a Cubano than the everything bagel of tortas, a pileup of breaded chicken, sliced ham, slivered hot dogs, lettuce and crema on freshly grilled bolillo bread. I wrote in my notes that, like Castro himself, the sandwich was a false promise. But then I tasted this mess. True, it didn’t look like much, but it was damn delicious.
Then it struck me: The torta, in large part, mirrors the restaurant itself.
11111 Baltimore Ave.,
Beltsville, Md. 301-595-8980.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Greenbelt, with a 2.8-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers, pupusas, salads and ceviches, $2-$14.99. Tacos, tortas, sandwiches and entrees, $9.99-$25.99.