Feature restaurant review: Ranchero Kitchen

G.A. Benton
Carne Asada Platter and Short Ribs and Veggies Soup

In a modern, roomy and spotlessly clean space, an automated water stream splashes serenely through several pitchers in what looks like a New Age stage prop. Nearby, a decorative fireplace flickers beneath a TV beaming an old Hollywood movie. Other TVs show a sitcom and a soccer game. A mainstream-pop soundtrack plays. Yup, I'm describing a Salvadoran restaurant.

But despite its calming if generic design, thisSalvadoran restaurant — Ranchero Kitchen — cooks vibrant, terrific food.

Previously operating from a cramped nook inside the Saraga International Grocery store, Ranchero Kitchen moved into its bigger, notably cushier digs a couple months ago. Along with the enhanced room came an expanded menu of delicious, inexpensive Salvadoran dishes.

If you know anything about the Central American cuisine of El Salvador, you know about pupusas. Purchase one here, and it'll be the best $2 you spend all week.

Ranchero's traditional pupusas are big, thick, pancake-like corn tortillas with enveloped fillings. Several varieties are offered; all come with the expected salsa roja (tomato sauce) and curtido, which recalls spicy pickled slaw.

Whether filled with cheese (wonderful, molten queso de Oaxaca), chicharron (killer stewed pork), refried beans (creamy, excellent) or loroco (fragrant, squash-like flower buds), they'll be crisply brown-spotted, rife with toasted masa-dough flavor and absolutely addictive. Hint: Off-menu, all-in-one pupusas called “revueltas” ($3.50) are available for folks who know to ask — and now that includes you.

The strikingly presented Yuca Frita Con Chicharron ($8) might have emanated from a fancier restaurant. It's a medley of dynamic colors, textures and flavors that counters crunchy-fried pork belly and crisp-fried yuca logs (think fries on steroids) with curtido, salsa roja and vegetables both aromatically pickled (cauliflower, green beans) and raw (watercress, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, tomato).

Most of the same vegetation reappears in the gloriously messy Pan con Pollo ($8), one of Ranchero's panes rellenos, or Salvadoran-style submarine sandwiches. The aforementioned cornucopia joins lively seasoned chicken (redolent of achiote and pimenton), a toasted sesame-seed roll and a side of lusty, almost coney-like meat sauce.

Another pan relleno I tried and can happily recommend is the Torta Salvadorena ($9). Served with fries, this cross between a breakfast sandwich and an Italian sub contains fried egg, griddled salami, melted cheese, mayo and veggies.

Carne asada is nearly as popular in El Salvador as it is in Mexico, and Ranchero's version of the grilled-steak classic ($15) might be the best in town. The hulking platter corrals plenty of thin and lean but tender and flavorful seared meat with top-shelf refried beans, fluffy Spanish rice with diced peppers, pico de gallo, hefty house-made tortillas, plus a fresh salad featuring avocado, cucumbers, diced tomatoes and watercress.

The Short Ribs and Veggies soup ($10) is a different kind of beefy success. Tender, stewed meat and a wealth of vegetables such as cabbage, zucchini, yuca and carrots rest in a rich chicken broth. On top is cilantro. On the side are house tortillas, plus — for those who care to moderate the comforting notes — lime and a fiery hot sauce.

The Salvadoran Breakfast Combo ($8.50) is served all day, so you can enjoy its delightful array of eggs, pan-fried sweet plantain strips, queso fresco slices, house tortillas, medium-hot salsa and crema anytime. And you can add mild chorizo ($1.25) if you want (you want).

Order this with cafe con leche ($2) and expect a cute teacup of diner-style coffee on a saucer bearing little tubs of Coffee-Mate. Order a Pina Maranon ($2.50) and expect a sweet pineapple drink. (Alcohol isn't offered).

You might also expect the smiling servers wearing red-and-white-checked shirts to occasionally disappear for a while. Worry not, because the food will arrive hot and deeply pleasing to your mouth, tummy and wallet.

Ranchero Kitchen

984 Morse Rd., North Side