Grunge for the Border
You can't judge a cook by its cover -- particularly not when you're dealing with Mexican restaurants. Some of the best I've eaten in looked the worst: dark and dirty, with busted windows or no windows, hand-painted signs or signs about to fall off, cigarette butts scattered all over the sidewalk, weeds wending their way to the front door, beer bottles lining the entrance. Because I've had such good luck in places that appeared so bad, I'm always on the lookout for other potential finds. So when I drive down Broadway, up Federal, across Colfax, Mexican restaurants have a way of catching my eye. Every dingy exterior could shelter a killer combo plate, a green chile of the gods, or a tequila-soused margarita that would make it impossible to adjust my eyes to the light once I finally make it back outside.
Over the last year, I'd driven past El Ranchito, a sad-looking joint that took over an old Mr. Steak at 2200 South Broadway, many times, always looking, always wondering what was inside. The light on the restaurant's sign doesn't work, so at night it appears closed; the parking lot is almost always empty, and the building's exterior has gone downhill since Mr. Steak left the premises. Of course, it was inevitable that one day I would succumb to temptation, pull into the lot, get out of the car and venture inside.
That day came a few weeks ago. Inside, we found that Mr. Steak's decor still held sway, with too much light illuminating the well-worn booths and scuffed floor. But once we started eating, we forgot all about our surroundings -- except for a moment of silent prayer offered up to Mr. Steak, because El Ranchito's meat-based dishes turned out to be knockouts.
While cheap cuts of meat are usually no bonus at cheap steakhouses, they can work very well at Mexican restaurants. El Ranchito rubbed its meat with chile pastes and salt, then cooked them until they sported little nuggets of gristle and tidbits of fat, as well as so much grilled flavor that I couldn't resist picking pieces off of other people's plates long after my own meal was gone. One of the best showcases for the kitchen's meaty skill was the taquitos dinner: three crisp-fried tacos (I have yet to figure out why some places call them flautas and some taquitos, because they're essentially the same thing) made from corn tortillas rolled around the most heavenly pork imaginable -- torn into thin shreds and coated with a wet, oily film of grease. It was so good, we finally started eating it with our fingers, treating it like pig popcorn. The carne adobada featured spicier, greasier pieces of delicious pork, and while the steak ranchero was chewy, it was so soaked with chile powder (and heat) that it was worth the gnaw. The beef was shredded for the burrito supreme, an addictive mess: Tender beef studded with bits of tomatoes had been stuffed inside a thick tortilla smothered with green, then slathered with a bulky, freshly made guacamole, lots of sour cream and a sheath of melted cheese; as if we needed them, refrieds arrived on the side.
El Ranchito serves round, restaurant-style, store-bought tortilla chips with its salsa, but the salsa itself was housemade, with lots of fresh cilantro leaves floating in a chile-walloped sauce. Mexican breakfast is available all day, making it possible to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack of chilaquiles, sort of a Mexican wake-up lasagna that layered corn tortillas, eggs, a fiery salsa, and rice and beans. El Ranchito's thick, sweet, hot, gravy-like green chile would be fine any time; it was a quintessential Denver take on the New Mexican brew, with chunks of roasted poblanos providing the punch and depth of flavor. Satisfying when ordered as a simple plate, the green chile also made a star of the soft-battered chiles rellenos, and it was a great dipper for another meat treat: crispy, crackly chicharrones. Like most restaurants that offer these fatty devils, El Ranchito double-fries the pork skins, once at low heat and then again, a process that makes them puff out and gives them a great crunch. But here the kitchen went an extra step, sending the chicharrones out piping hot so that they lacked the lardy, hard-edged quality of fried pork rinds that have been sitting on a paper towel all day.
Who's responsible for all of these meaty marvels? That remains a mystery. El Ranchito is part of a three-outlet (all on South Broadway) chain that appears to be headquartered at 601 South Broadway and whose ownership is unknown. "I can't tell you that," said one less-than-cooperative manager. What she could tell me: Her restaurant is as close as you can get to the original El Ranchito's location; the outlet that opened at Broadway and Alameda about a decade ago moved to 601 South Broadway in 1993. (For Denver diners with long memories, this was the former home of Thoa Fink's foray into Southwestern fare, Cactus.) A second El Ranchito opened three years ago down at 92 East Arapahoe, and then the third outlet made its appearance at 2200 South Broadway about a year ago. The manager also hinted that whoever the owners might be, they weren't happy with Westword's review of the original outlet, done by John Kessler ("Run for the Border," June 19, 1991). From reading it, I got the idea that Kessler loved the place. "Yeah," the manager responded, "but it isn't what we would have written."
And Kessler didn't even mention the service. At 601 South Broadway, it was indifferent at best (the crowd at a funeral is happier than this staff) and the atmosphere was peculiar (grungy pink-and-green decor, loud video games and lighting so dim you needed a headlamp to see your food). I never felt welcome at this branch, which fronts the Denver Design Center. How this shrine to grouchy grunge has survived in the face of the Center's chi-chi style I do not know, although both times I ate there most of the other diners were construction workers who seemed capable of ignoring the ambience in favor of the excellent food. The staff at the 2200 South Broadway spot was much friendlier, and the kitchen lightning-fast in getting the food to the table -- although that may have had something to do with the fact that the place was always nearly empty.
No, you can't judge a cook by the cover of the restaurant for which he works. Inside these dingy exteriors, the neon bites are bright on Broadway.
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