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Ranchos Cocina

1830 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach

Just so you know," says Hank. "It's changed."

"Changed what? Address? Diapers?"

"You'll see, muchacho, you'll see."

We park on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, near Narragansett. I get out and step up through, like, a hole in the bushes and -- oh wow. All of a sudden you're in this little plank-floored garden room. Bushes and hanging plants hide the people yakking and chewing. It feels as if we've been transported. I'm thinking Acapulco. No, Ticul. Yucatán peninsula. It's the boards, the ferns, the creepers, the hothouse feel, the Spanish conversation drifting out from the kitchen next door.

"Order the 99," says this gal Rhoda. She's sitting with her six buddies. "It was made in heaven. Honestly. Ask for the shiitake whole-wheat quesadilla."

"No no!" says this other lady. Susan. "Pancakes to morir for! Multi-grano! Healthy? It's all healthy."

Susan says she's been hearing about this place for eight years. "I spent $1400 round-trip from Jersey, just to come for a $7.00 meal and shut this bunch of leftist agitators up. It'd better be good."

That's when Hank's face pushes in through the bushes. "For crying out loud. There you are. You have to go through the main entrance."

I follow him out onto the sidewalk, then through a blue-rimmed door.

In here, it's completely different. A small space with a counter opens onto a large, low-ceilinged barn. There are orange-washed walls and a hanging forest of healthy greenery; Mexican blond-wood benches; leather-topped tables; those pigskin, wood-strut chairs that Cortez invented to honor his nobles -- even tree branches suspended from the ceiling as art. What a trip.

"Remember when this was a tiny, one-room affair?" Hank says.

"From the outside, dude. I've never been in before."

"It's big," he says, "but it doesn't feel like an airplane hangar."

Luis, one of the waiters, sits us at a table. We're lucky -- is packed. This part of the restaurant has more potted ferns, ceilings lined with stretched-out coffee sacks with names like "TULUNI SUPREMO" stamped across them.

"Make up your mind quickly, dude," Hank says, looking up from his menu. "You miss the chance, you wait for hours."

Damn. 'Cause this is where I like to mull. And with 230-plus items, mulling is a duty. "All natural rancho style," it says on the menu, right above a picture of a cantina Somewhere In Mexico. Items have all kinds of asterisks and code letters to indicate if dishes are vegan or vegetarian or can be adapted in that direction. Appetizers, combination plates, soup'n'salads, tortas, burritos, tacos, tostadas, enchiladas -- all going for around 3 to 7 bucks, I'm happy to see -- plus a bunch of "Rancho Substantials," which range from 6 to 15 bucks. But that 15-bucker is lobster fajitas. Seafood, like shrimp in garlic with rice, beans, guacamole, and tortillas, is nearer $12.00.

It's not all veggie. Steak ranchero is $9.25 (same sides), chicken enchiladas are $3.25, beef or chicken or fish tacos are $3.25, three tuna-rolled taquitos are $4.25.

Oh man. So much to look at. I'm just flipping the page when Luis comes back. "Number 160 with shiitake," Hank says, immediately.

I flip back. He's ordered a large Ranchos dinner salad with "lettuce, spring mix, tomatoes, mushrooms, avocado, cheese, $5.50. Shiitake or chicken, add $1.50." So he's spent seven clams. Plus a limonada ($1.45, same price as iced tea), horchata (the rice drink), or jamaica (made from hibiscus flowers).

I'm tempted. I know Hank's on to something good. But my stupid gut is still crying out for breakfast. I remember Susan's multi-granos. Fresh-toasted, they'd smell great. I flip to the final page. "All-Day Breakfast," it says. Then a bunch of Mexican and not-so-Mexican choices like Buenos Días burrito, $4.25, Buenos Días torta, same. Eggs any style with potatoes, turkey sausage, and toast or tortillas, $4.95.

In the Breakfast Combinations, I see a shrimp-and-mushroom omelet with cheese, rice or potatoes, beans, and tortillas, $8.50. Not bad.

But -- sigh. There's Number 207 "Organic Multigrain or Buttermilk Flapjacks," $4.95. With three turkey sausages, add $1.95. With egg, add 95 cents.

That's what I go for.

And they're good. Substantial, great with the syrup and butter and sausages and scrambled egg. Except, they're outclassed by those shiitake mushrooms Hank has in his salad. They look -- and heck, when he forks one over -- they taste, even feel like meat. It's just a darned good salad. And it'd go so well with the Negra Modelo beer they stock ($3.25), dammit. But no. I got me an organic coffee with cinnamon on top ($1.45). It's better suited to my multigrains.

At the end of the meal, I take a gander around the walls. One whole side is filled with Frida Kahlo images. Another has the Mexican Revolution in black-and-white pix. In one, pistoleros stand on the cowcatcher of a steaming loco. Someone has inked in a caption: "Tierra Blanca Battle, 1913."

And then, on the back wall, César Chávez's Farm Workers' Union prayer:

"Show me suffering most miserable

So I will know my people's plight...

Help us love even those who hate us

So we can change the world."

Wow.

Hank comes up.

"Dude," I say, "what are we doing with our pathetic lives?"

"Don't worry about it," says Hank. "A few breaths of fresh air, and you'll forget these romantic notions. Follow me."

I do. But I can't help noticing all those Fridas looking down. With pity, I swear.

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