This family-run spot on the Hilltop does Mexican fare right: simple and affordably.
Located off the well-trodden restaurant track, there's a cherry-red house on Brown Road near Green Lawn Cemetery that resembles a one-room schoolhouse of old. Except here at El Ranchito Taqueria, you get schooled in affordable Mexican home cooking by patriarch Rogelio Herrera and his family, who hail from the state of Michoacán.
Some local taquerias, like Condado, have turned tacos into trendy, customizable things with multiple iterations of tortillas, sauces and toppings—washed down with enough tequila to drown myriad agave worms. And that's fine. The nearly 4-year-old El Ranchito is something different—a no-frills, blue-collar spot where you can find Mexican family recipes for tacos, tortas, carne asada, pozole and more, simply prepared and presented.
El Ranchito's small dining room with jack-o'-lantern-orange walls consists of eight booths, two tables and a small counter—nearly all filled on the weekends. The staff is warm, efficient and made up mostly of the Herrera family, says Miriam Herrera, Rogelio's daughter, who runs the restaurant along with her father and her sister, Alejandra.
To begin, skip the soda and order the sweet and cinnamon-y house-made horchata or the refreshing agua de Jamaica (hibiscus tea)—both $1.50–$3. You might also start with the guacamole ($3.50), a fresh and chunky variety served with freshly fried tortilla chips.
Homemade salsa sits on all the tables in unassuming squeeze bottles—a green salsa referred to as mild (some will find it quite spicy) and a hot, red version with a tint that cautions: beware.
The classic tacos ($2), served on corn tortillas with a protein, cilantro and onions, are indeed straightforward and excellent. Meat choices range from standard pollo (chicken) to flavorful adobada (marinated pork) to tender cabeza (beef head). Miriam says they added “supreme” tacos ($2.25) with cheese, lettuce and sour cream to appeal to American tastes. The same goes for the really large burritos ($6.50).
Gorditas ($2.75) and sopes ($2.75) are underrated delicacies—how many sope spots have you heard about in town?—but they shouldn't be; they're just not as easy to eat with your hands as a taco. The gordita is essentially its fat cousin, with the ingredients stuffed between thicker corn tortillas. Meanwhile, sopes are disks of lightly fried masa (not as thin, wide or as crispy as a tostada) that hold refried beans and other toppings. Whereas a taco's tortillas hold the true star—the interior ingredients—the thicker masa dough, made fresh daily for El Ranchito's gorditas and sopes, is a true co-star.
Not to be overlooked is the selection of large platters like carne asada, served with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and warm tortillas. The super-thin steak, salty and tender, is a steal at $12.90. Other platters include the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-middle mojarra frita, or whole fried tilapia ($12.99).
Asked what the restaurant does best, Miriam doesn't hesitate to call out its soups, served only on the weekends because of kitchen space and the time they take to cook overnight. El Ranchito's popular birria ($10), a spicy goat stew (which she calls a great hangover cure), entices customers to arrive at 8 a.m. on Saturdays just to score a bowl. Miriam says it often sells out by mid-afternoon. I can vouch for this, so I'll be back.
El Ranchito is open 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.