El Rancho Grande

Authentic is the aim at El Rancho Grande — a family run find that’s helping real Mexican go mainstream.

Photography by Angel Tucker

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311 Plainfield Street, Providence, 275-0808, elranchogranderestaurant.com. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Tight for wheelchair accessibility. Private parking lot and street parking. Cuisine Homespun Mexican. Capacity Forty-five would be pushing it. Vibe Low-key coffee shop with a perimeter of knick-knacks. Prices Do damage with a kid’s allowance: $1.50–$12. Bottled beer is $3.50; sangria is $5 a glass; no hard liquor. Karen’s picks Tacos, torta de pierna adobada (pork sandwich), cochinita pibil (braised citrus pork loin), bistek a la Mexicana (marinated steak), tikin-xic (steamed Mayan fish), hot chocolate.
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Mexican food has two types of patrons: indifferent and obsessed. The former might be lured by price (rock-bottom) or the scenery (casual), but the latter is drawn, night after night, by the steady infusion of a few key ingredients. After all, flour, corn and beans just may be the world’s most malleable pantry staples, giving rise to endless dishes, both understated and grand. Throw in some queso and life looks pretty good on a platter.

Locating a decent enchilada, however, can be a geographic challenge. Because of the low prices, Rhode Island’s best Mexican restaurants often occupy the state’s tiniest, most clandestine spaces. Take El Rancho Grande, a forty-seater on Plainfield Street that flaunts its superlative wares with little more than a modest Americana “open” flag and five-car parking lot. But this Puebla-inspired enclave remains packed from early morning until well after dinner, distributing the proverbial bread and wine — here, homemade corn tortillas and red sangria — to the hungry.

The CEO of this small venture is Maria Meza who, along with son Joaquin Jr., serves as sentinel to the family’s culinary jewels and ambassador of Latin American culture — a post she holds with great modesty. El Rancho Grande — part diner, part family foyer — is only large enough to hold a handful of city diners who sit willingly but frigidly near the street-side door. Yet even on subzero nights, sangria and cold beer flow like the Usumacinta, warming the blood from the inside out. The a.m. crowd has it even better: huevos, chiliquiles and breakfast enchiladas ($4 to $6.50) are served with complimentary coffee, a commodity more precious than oil on a winter weekday.

 “Authentic” Mexican food has established itself as a mainstream and highly stylized genre of regional food ever since Rick Bayless led the call to arms more than twenty years ago. But the demarcation between native cuisine and the more commercial Tex-Mex hybrid is often unappreciated. Where Americanized versions suffocate under a lead blanket of melted orange cheese and a deficiency of spice, indigenous dishes are clean in flavor and texture. There’s no point in braising meat for five hours if it’s going to be camouflaged as a nebulous protein paste, and Meza’s dishes generally hold themselves to that standard. In fact, there are several sandwich-style dishes — tostadas, huaraches, gorditas ($1.50 to $4) — that highlight the strength of El Rancho’s stewed and grilled meats in sheer simplicity. Slowly simmered chicken, thin strips of grilled steak, diced chorizo and even barbacoa (fragrant, extensively simmered goat) are easy to identify with only restrained amounts of lettuce and salty cotija cheese. Yet it’s the torta de pierna adobada ($4.50) that manages to get everything together under one roll, topping marinated pork with pickled jalapenos, refried beans and cool avocado.

The cohesiveness of the torta allows several individual ingredients, including a bright, tangy stewed pork, to shine rather than get swallowed up by a culinary concept. (If you’re all carnivore, the pork takes center stage in cochinita pibil for $12.)

El Rancho GrandeThat’s not to say that sauce doesn’t play a large role in El Rancho’s arsenal. Puebla’s claim to fame on the gastronomic map is mole, no small feat in a world that’s always looking for the next best thing. Mole, which was first concocted several hundred years ago, remains elusive in its origins but still innovative today with numerous incarnations based on region and familial tradition, not to mention whim. Meza’s is peanut butter thick, overtly sweet and very dark, a testament to the roasted chili peppers that form its base. It coats chicken ($10) liberally though it tends to grow a bit monotonous in such a straightforward dish. Tamales oaxaqueños ($2.50) present it in more subtle fashion: mixed with whole sweet plums and encased in steamed masa. Classic pork tamales (half the price of a grande latte at $1.75) are a steal, though the Bubblicious hued tamales de dulce (sweet pineapple tamales) are more artistic venture than dinner staple.
Another indicator that Meza’s not keen on catering strictly to the American palate is the pervasive spice that shows up all over the table. Gratis pico de gallo is nowhere near mild, nor is the creamy guacamole that brings little more than avocado with a hefty bite. (A plus, not a drawback.) Shrimp is cooked with green tomatillo and jalapeño salsa or a smoky chipotle onion sauce ($10.95), both of which offer flavor first and fire as they go down. But diners ought not overlook the subtle fish dishes, the best of which are weekend-only options. Tikin-xic, a citrus-scented, Mayan-style grouper ($10), is tossed with garlic and peppers and steamed in a banana leaf until just barely cooked. Fried plantains only highlight the delicacy of a quiet but effective preparation.

Ultimately, El Rancho’s menu is slightly tamer than the nearby Mexico City-inspired Chilangos, a restaurant more apt to challenge eaters with cow’s feet, tongue and pork skin. The similarities are notable though, as both appeal more to the tastebuds than a sense of formality. Toddler-toting parents and college couples gather with little space to stand and rarely are there more than two servers negotiating several dozen diners. Do people care? It depends on who you’re asking. Things get moderately chaotic after 7 p.m., but let’s be honest: The prices are so low here that I almost offered to bus my own dishes or stand over a soapy sink.

But, for customers willing to extend the suffering of those waiting in the wings, there are some options. Desserts are both authentic and random: flan on the one hand, fried strawberry ice cream on the other. The truly obligatory dish, however, isn’t really a dish at all; it’s in a cup. El Rancho’s hot chocolate (served straight or con leche) is less beverage and more melted candy bar soup scented with cinnamon. It’s celestial. It’s sublime. It’s less than two dollars. And it’s high time to have another.