El Rancho Grande

A superb Mexican in Olneyville
By JOHNNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  November 19, 2007

El Rancho Grande | 311 Plainfield, Providence | Sun-Sat, 6 am-10 pm | Major credit cards | Beer + sangria | Sidewalk-level access | 401.275.0808
In line with the old adage that the best roadside restaurant is usually the one with the most long-haul trucks in the parking lot, the best neighborhood eatery might be the one with the most police officers eating there at a given time. Who better knows where good food is to be found while working a beat? When we had dinner at El Rancho Grande, five cops shared a table near the front of this modest place just outside Olneyville Square. And they were right!
 
Everything at El Rancho Grande had the delicious taste of slow-cooked food and fresh ingredients, from the cilantro-packed pico de gallo to the creamy flan. The décor is straightforward: about a dozen tables, large windows onto the street, and, on the day when we were there, just after the Days of the Dead, an altar to the parents and grandparents of Maria Meza, who co-owns this place with her son, Joaquin Meza Jr.
 
The Mezas opened the restaurant just six months ago, but they seem well on their way to success. Maria came out to greet us and to tell us about the altar, pointing out the skulls made from sugar molds and the photos brought by others to commemorate their loved ones. Maria’s way of doing this for her own family was to cook for customers some of her parents’ favorite dishes.
 
One of those was pollo al pipián, boneless chicken breasts smothered until fork-tender and served with a tomatillo-pumpkin seed sauce, very green, very lemony from the tomatillos, with a kick of heat at the end. I thoroughly enjoyed the chicken, as well as the tamale oaxaqueños ($2.50) we had ordered. Its thick masa harina (cornmeal) blanket surrounded shredded chicken, sweet plums and mole sauce. It was as much a treat as the pipián.

Bill ordered camarones en chipotle ($10.95), since the magic word “chipotle” caught his eye. The shrimp were sautéed in an onion-chipotle sauce, not too spicy, and they were accompanied by rice, salad, refried beans, and warm tortillas.
 
Since I had been waffling over which chicken entrée to choose, Maria sent out a piece of chicken in guajillo sauce to try (the entrée is $8). Guajillo peppers are usually dried, leathery-looking dark reddish-brown chilis, which are soaked, pounded into a paste, and simmered with avocado leaf (who knew?) to create this tasty and fiery sauce.
 
The other dish we tried from the regular menu was pozole ($7), a hominy-based soup that’s always been a favorite of Bill’s. This version, in traditional Mexican style, had plenty of pork and none of the lettuce he expected from previous New Mexican-style versions. It was served with fresh chopped onion, lime wedges, and cilan¬tro, so the operative seasonings could be customized. It also was accompanied by two tortillas spread with refried beans and sprinkled with a bit of white cheese.  
 
The desserts listed “tropi¬¬cal quesadillas” and “crepes de Guayaba,” both to serve three people (one suspects it would be even more), but these were not available that evening, so we chose the flan. It was a wonderfully simple version of the ubiquitous Latin American dish, with no caramelized sugar syrup but a deep, eggy texture and vanilla flavor.
 
Another simple item at El Rancho Grande with far more complexity to it than one might expect is the Mexican hot chocolate, made with milk ($1.75) or without ($1.25). Under the rich chocolate is a soothing wave of cinnamon.
 
Since El Rancho Grande is open from breakfast through lunch and dinner, there are several breakfast specials, including enchiladas with black beans, melted cheese, salsa, and fried eggs or huevos con chorizo (eggs scrambled with Mexican sausage).
 
The “snacks” (antojitos) encompass the familiar tacos, burritos, tostadas, and quesadillas, along with gorditas, thick hand-made flour tortilla with toppings; tortas, warm sandwiches on thick white bread; and sopes, hand-made corn tortillas that are fried and topped with salsa and crumbled cotija cheese (feta-like, but less salty).
 
The dinner menu doesn’t neglect enchiladas or fajitas, and there are a dozen house specials, most notably: chilis rellenos, milanezas (breaded chicken, beef, or pork), barbacoa (goat seasoned with a dry chili rub), and enchiladas with mole sauce, which originated in the Puebla region of Mexico, where the Mezas stem from. Other unusual items at El Rancho Grande are menudo (beef tripe soup), pickled cactus in the ensalada Azteca, and marinated cow leg.
 
There are so many items that tempt me back to El Rancho Grande, and for the bargain prices, I’m looking forward to going almost as often as the neighborhood cops.

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