Arts & Culture

El Rancho Grande: Mexican flavor far from border

Complex flavors and hearty dishes shine despite the restaurant’s humble decor and presentation

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Monday, October 21, 2013

El Rancho Grande offered a multidimensional taste of Mexico with delicate and bold flavors that brought depth to often one-note dishes.

This article is part of the series Restaurant Week, Fall 2013

In a New York Times story earlier this month, food critic Pete Wells noted what should be considered a universal truth — tacos, and Mexican cuisine in general, are better enjoyed not in an upscale restaurant but at a hole-in-the wall joint run by a no-frills kitchen.

Mexican food has long been a quintessential cheap eat in the United States. But new fine dining establishments serving the cuisine have recently opened up — New York’s ABC Cocina offers short-rib tacos with frizzled onions for $19, and the guacamole at Empellon Taqueria runs $12.

After tasting the dishes served at El Rancho Grande — a down-home, one-room restaurant situated in a tight lot in Providence’s Hartford neighborhood — you will wonder why anyone would spend more than $20 or bother with a stuffy table cloth for a south-of-the-border meal.

As suggested by the humble dining room with its simple tile floors and folksy art decor, this place is all about the food.

The extensive menu offers both familiar dishes and more authentic ones that are rare this far north — it is in this latter category that the restaurant truly shines. Perhaps the triumph in traditional flavors can be attributed to the fact that the owner hails straight from Mexico. According to the restaurant’s website, Maria Meza immigrated from Puebla, Mexico over 40 years ago before opening the establishment with her son Joaquin Meza Jr. in 2007. In their mission to serve “traditional Mexican dishes at an affordable price,” they excel.

The ensalada azteca, a salad of cactus, tomatoes, fresh herbs and cheese, provided a refreshing counterpoint to the kick of the spicy salsa and showcased a multi-dimensional side of Mexican cooking that went beyond just heat. The appetizer lacked the aluminum taste that can accompany cactus, allowing the flavor of each ingredient to shine.

In a similar nod to authenticity, the queso fundito included spicy chorizo and smoky roasted poblano peppers, adding depth and savory flavors to what is too often a one-note dish. Though it was served with warm flour tortillas, the thick, crunchy, homemade corn chips put out for the table were a heartier partner for the rich dip.

The kitchen did not shy away from heat — the pico de gallo is not for those with faint taste buds — but it successfully played with milder flavors in the cocktel de camarones, a traditional Mexican take on a shrimp cocktail that drowns the fresh seafood in a ketchup-based sauce, combining it with onions, cilantro and tomato. Though a fine-dining restaurant may shun the idea of serving the dish with saltine crackers, the customary accompaniment provided the sturdy simplicity needed to counteract the delicate mix of sweet, tangy and spicy.

Even the Americanized menu items, such as the chimichanga, showcased a respect for traditional ingredients and Mexican flavors unavailable in any of the burritos served up on Thayer Street. Though this dish may not have looked particularly elegant — an unattractive orange sauce covered the indelicately large stuffed tortilla — its flavors made up for its appearance, and the spicy sauce managed not to overwhelm the smoky, meaty taste of the shredded pork or the crisp fried tortilla.

Despite the attention to authenticity in flavor, the kitchen can fall short on execution, evidenced by the overcooked, chewy meat of the bistec en salsa verde, which would have been a complete disappointment if not for the complex, herbaceous notes of the tomatillo sauce.

This lack of upscale-quality standards was mirrored by the simple atmosphere. The small size of the space leaves the dining room a little too loud for conversation on a crowded night. And despite attempts at creating a cozy environment, such as the warm yellow walls, one would be hard-pressed not to notice the restaurant’s starkness or to ignore the glare of the television hanging by the five-seat bar.

The service would similarly benefit from the consideration it is given at high-end establishments. While the servers offered suggestions when asked, they did not seem particularly knowledgable about the subtleties of dishes. And though fast service is the standard at hole-in-the-wall spots, the entrees were brought out well too soon — before the appetizers were even completed — and the pace bordered on unenjoyably rushed.

The plates may lack garnishes beyond a lime slice or stroke of guacamole, and the decor may be described as rustic at best, but you go to El Rancho Grande for the food, and in that department, it delivers.

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