In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Federal Boulevard isn't a place for pretty restaurants or elegant platings. This street certainly has more than its fair share of exotic ingredients that elevate dishes -- whether a radially symetric cross-section of steamed lotus root or a purple-streaked octopus tendril reaching out from a ceviche tostada -- but presentation is almost always secondary to flavor, value and tradition. Even the real estate for a dining room with actual tables and booths is somewhat of a luxury; many restaurants on the strip are nothing more than a kitchen with a take-out window and maybe a picnic table or a few stools at a lunch counter. Particularly on this stretch just north of Alameda, industrial is far from chic; it's just the way things are. El Rancherito squats on a corner and, while sporting a newish coat of tan paint, otherwise blends in with the neighboring tattoo parlor and medical marijuana dispensary, all of which appear to have endured many lifetimes of use as single-family homes, rental units and small businesses.
Which is why I was so surprised at the sparkling and well-lit interior of El Rancherito, which from the outside seemed to be just another in a series of run-down, dingy or otherwise uninviting Mexican restaurants. At 7 p.m. on a weeknight, the dining room was empty, save for the ghost of John Elway inhabiting his bright orange jersey, signed and framed on the front wall. The menu indicated that the place was owned and operated by the Pulido family who, according to our waitress, had been keeping the place clean and busy for the past 25 years. The menu also offered a standard variety of Den Mex specialties, a few seafood options and a big breakfast lineup. My combo plate of beef burrito, soft chile relleno (a crispy coating is also available) and cheese enchilada came two-thirds smothered in a smooth, pinkish green chile sauce. The remaining third, occupied by the enchilada, was coated in a red enchilada sauce. The green chile was the smoothest I've seen in town, with only a few random slivers of chile and tomato breaking the otherwise tranquil surface. It was thick, but not gluey or heavy and the flavor was mild, with only a hint of tang and heat. Still, it was a pleasant-enough accompaniment for the fresh flavors of the well-seasoned ground-beef burrito and the relleno, jacketed in an egg batter more like an omelette surrounding a tongue-sized slab of roasted and peeled chile. Amy's chilaquiles boasted more heat from a spicy red sauce studded with fresh slices of jalapeño. Sauce-soaked and fried strips of tortilla provided just enough texture to offset tender bits of egg and shredded chicken. The smooth refritos benefited from the presence of rich lard.
This was all uncomplicated food, obviously made fresh but without flare or creative license. It was the kind of solid, Denver-style Mexican that becomes a favorite over the years, not from standing out with originality, but from consistent delivery and a no-nonsense approach. But that night, I was also struck by a late-dawning realization: I was there at the wrong time. Minus the few south-of-the-border trappings and stucco exterior, El Rancherito has more in common with typical breakfast diners than nearby Mexican restaurants. The clues? The cartons of powdered creamer and sugar shakers that adorned every table, the lack of evening customers, the menu's emphasis on breakfast items (served all day, no less).
So, of course, I returned a couple of days later for breakfast. The same smooth green chile topped a plate of huevos rancheros sided with the same smoky refried beans. Chips and salsa came free, just as at dinner. A plate of scrambled eggs with chorizo packed a similar well-balanced heat to the dishes we'd eaten that first night. The difference was that the place was abuzz with families out for a cheap and filling meal, solo patrons grabbing breakfast burritos to go, and employees bustling about, keeping everyone happy with pots of coffee and baskets of chips.
The dinner entrees were certainly filling and flavorful, if homogeneous in texture and color. But those same flavors and textures came to life just a little more first thing in the morning. And while breakfast was cluttered and chaotic compared to dinner (where the waitress must have swept the entire floor three times while we ate), El Rancherito felt relaxed and comfortable as a breakfast diner, where the sounds of the cooks slinging eggs and tortillas, the chatter of kids crawling over the spacious booths, and the chime of silverware on oval platters were the sure signs of a restaurant long acquainted with simple, honest and good food.
A restaurant has to do something right to stick around for a quarter century. I've had better green chile without even having to venture off Federal; I've eaten unfamiliar dishes that have opened my eyes to the variety and creativity of Mexican cuisine; I've grabbed meals to go that never even made it home because I couldn't resist wolfing everything down while careening through rush-hour traffic. But El Rancherito did something surprising because of its simple and honest approach: It got me to return.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.