I’m always skeptical when people recommend Mexican restaurants to me. The reason is that there are some terrible places out there, and even worse, many people don’t know what good Mexican food tastes like. This was not the case with:
El Rancho Grande
311 Plainfield Street
Providence, RI 02909
A few friends recommended this place to me and I finally had the pleasure to eat there on a Sunday evening.
Atmosphere and Service:
I wouldn’t necessarily call this place a hole in the wall because it’s pretty obvious where it is from the street, but the parking situation isn’t great (i.e. street parking or possibly a lot behind the restaurant) and it looks a little divey inside. That isn’t a big deal though because the interior is pretty small, which means that only so many people can eat/park at the same time. The dining room isn’t very spacious, but the restaurant does a good job of packing in as many people as possible without making it feel claustrophobic. It’s almost like seating in an Italian place in the North End of Boston except that you’re not touching shoulders with the people next to you. We were lucky because we got there just before a dinner rush, but the place got packed while we were there. Otherwise, the interior was pretty standard for a Mexican Restaurant. The service the night I went was a little spotty when the server forgot to bring us chips and salsa, which comes to every table when people are seated. It also took a while to get a refill on drinks and the food didn’t come out quickly either (maybe that’s a good thing though because it means they’re making everything fresh).
Chips and Salsa:
When the chips and salsa finally came after our request, I was very pleased with what the server brought us. The chips seemed fresh (perhaps made on-site) and they weren’t huge. Each chip was the perfect size for dipping and eating in one or two bites. Many Mexican places give you these gigantic chips that you have to break in half in order to get at the salsa or fit it into your mouth. These chips were a perfect size though. The salsa was fresh and spicy. I was surprised at the level of heat in the salsa because most restaurants err on the side of mild because Americans aren’t use to very spicy food. This was not the case here, but it was a pleasant surprise. Within minutes we polished off the basket of chips and the salsa was down to a few drops. By the end, we were just eating the tasty chips on their own to tone down some of the delicious heat from the salsa.
When I read the description of the tacos they seemed too simple to actually be good and they were very inexpensive at $1.50 per taco. We wanted to try them though in addition to our meals so we ordered two. One carne asada (steak) taco and one carnitas (pork). They came as simply as they were described. Two soft corn tacos in some wax paper dressed only with cilantro and onion. Upon taking the first bite of the carne asada taco, I couldn’t believe how much flavor it had. I also tasted the carnitas taco and again tons of flavor. The expertly seasoned meat in both was tender as well as distinct. The carnitas had a little lime flavor and appropriately had a lighter taste than the carne asada. I understood why they only had onions and cilantro on them because that’s all they needed. The meat spoke for itself and didn’t need cheese, lettuce, sour cream or anything else to cover it up. Just excellent, authentic style tacos that I probably could have eaten 4 (or more) as a meal on their own.
Enchiladas and Sides:
As our entrees we got enchiladas. This standard Mexican staple is almost at every Mexican restaurant and in addition to tacos, I always try a restaurant’s enchiladas as a touchstone to see if it is any good. On the weekend, El Rancho Grande has a special dish called something like “Tres Enchiladas.” This dish comes with three enchiladas and three different types of sauces. It’s basically their sampler enchilada dish. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to try it. I mean, it removed all of the turmoil of having to choose between sauces! When the enchiladas came out, the plate was basically decorated like a sideways Mexican flag, which I found both delicious and wonderful to look at. The red or rojo sauce was a hearty tomato-based sauce with smokey chipotle flavors. The white sauce is a special house sauce made with cheese and sour cream, which was rich and heavy. The green sauce was a verde or tomatillo based sauce that had a spicy kick to it, but lighter than the other two sauces. Inside the enchiladas were cheese and shredded or chopped chicken breast. The chicken tasted tender and great, but very simple without much seasoning. My only complaint was that there was possibly too much sauce. A little less sauce would let the enchilada do some of the work flavor-wise. The sauces were definitely the star of this dish though. On the side, it came with black beans that were also spicy with a mild chipotle flavor and a little ramekin of yellow rice. The rice tasted good, but was heading towards the dry side. The beans tasted really flavorful and also had a small fried ball inside made with a very mild flavored cheese. The cheese ball tasted great, but the subtle flavors were almost lost if you mixed it with the beans.
I really enjoyed El Rancho Grande. The food had that authentic feel, but felt familiar in all the right ways. I would definitely return and plan to do so sometime in the near future to try some of their other non-enchilada dishes (even though they were great). I highly recommend a visit, but be careful because, as I mentioned, the seating area is small and the places gets packed by dinner time.
Rating: Many back-to-back allegedly borderline-racist, stereotypical Speedy Gonzales, “Arribas!”
My favorites on the menu there are the Tinga Poblana and the Cochinitas Pibil.