Walter Mencken 5:01 p.m., Nov. 25
I haven't visited Ranchos since well before the place got a facelift, which was quite a while ago now. It's been at least a year since the restaurant's facade changed from urban jungle to the current, albeit somewhat imposing, look. I'd say it's a little more open, a bit less of a den, but still pretty much the same in spirit. The portraits of Frida Kahlo still line the right-hand wall as one walks in and the atmosphere is still charming and a cut above the average Mexican restaurant in terms of likability.
As a business, Ranchos gets some credit for being strongly family-operated and participating in the local restaurant community in a vital way. While that has little effect on the food, for better or worse, it does matter to some degree as the fates of every shop along that crowded North Park corridor are at least a little interwoven.
I've enjoyed margaritas by the pitcher ($22) at Ranchos because the selection of Mexican beers is a little on the pricey side, sometimes costing over $4 for what should be a $2.75 bottle. Since Ranchos has less of a take-out feel than other places, it's more justifiable to sit and drink a margarita.
I can't say the food has been all good or all bad. The restaurant gets high marks from the vegetarian and vegan community for making a sincere effort at putting novel, meatless items on the menu. When straying from that niche market, however, I find that Ranchos kitchen tends to miss the mark with greater frequency.
Appetizers run in the $5 to $10 range. As an example of great, vegetarian cooking, a quesadilla with squash, corn, and pico de gallo that came on a whole-wheat tortilla was excellent. The fresh, wholesome flavor embodied the Mexican-Bohemian fusion experience and was an atypical, and therefore intriguing, quesadilla.
Smaller main dishes, such as burritos and tortas, usually cost in the $6-$8 range. This is a touch higher than the usual cost of a burrito, but there are some intriguing options such as a lentil, avocado, and cheese burrito that is unlike most other burritos in town and, in the same vein as the quesadilla, filled with artfully prepared vegetables.
Larger combination plates and "Ranchos substantials" can cost upward of $12, and it's there that the kitchen seems to tread on shaky ground. Lobster fajitas — one of the more expensive things on the menu — were a disappointment. There was little in the way of lobster and the peppers and onions were downright watery. The best part of the dish were the rice and beans, which perhaps supports the theory that Ranchos is better for vegetarians.
None of this is to say that Ranchos is to be avoided. It's simply been my past experience that it's a good idea to stick to the house specialty (i.e., vegetables) in order to send the bill downward and the quality of the meal upward.
3910 30th Street
Open daily 9AM-10PM