Suddenly I noticed a sign for "El Rancho Spanish Restaurant" and read it out loud while Morgana looked out the window looking for other appealing options. "I thought they closed down," she said. "I guess they just renovated." Just off 118th, in a little commercial strip resides a vacation for your taste buds. El Rancho serves up Mexican and El Salvadorian cuisine made with grandma's love, from scratch. Truly, it's a grandma and mama operation, with no frills or pretense, just really really good food. Our server did not speak much English, but she definitely understood me when I told her I wanted whoever was working behind those swinging doors to teach me to make their tortilla soup. "It's easy," she told me, and then proceeded to walk me through the steps to her own version, using descriptions and hand gestures when the vocabulary failed. Start by boiling a chicken. Add celery and onion to the stock pot. Strain the liquid into another pot. Add tomatoes. Simmer until flavour is rich. Then finish with cilantro, avocado, queso fresco, and sour cream.
When we walked in there was only one other table occupied, not always the best sign. But it was already quite late in the afternoon and a Wednesday at that. The adobe coloured walls and solid wooden tables were warm and welcoming and the sturdy leather chairs were very comfortable. I've already told you how greatly I enjoyed the flavours of the tortilla soup. It was spicy but not overpoweringly so. The flavour base was chicken, onion, celery, and tomato and it was finished with fresh avocado, cilantro, homemade sour cream and crunchy tortilla strips. It tasted so homemade, as if my own grandmother (if she were Hispanic) had dished it out for me on a visit at her house. A great way to warm up and at $6.95 for a very large bowl it was perfect for sharing as a starter.
Though I had not had many that impressed me in the past, Morgana urged me to try the fried plantains. I am so glad I went against my instincts there because I think they were my favourite part of the meal. I've never had plantains like this - plantanitos, chewy, gooey, sweet and salty. Amazing. They were served with the same homemade sour cream. This sour cream was unlike any I've had before. It was a bit salty. It cooled the heat from the spice in the soup and added an even richer dimension to the plantains while cutting their richness with its acidity. Good to know that a dish of heaven can be yours for $5.95.
The spicy grilled shrimp came next, served with mango salsa and a little green salad. The mangoes were well ripened but diced just small enough not to become the focal point of the dish. For an appetizer, this was also a very large portion and could easily have been a main course if paired with a smaller appie to start or the soup. Priced more like a main dish too at $10.95.
The only other busy table was occupied by three Spanish speaking men. They said "hola" to us as we came in and carried on chattering away and joking with the server as she brought them more food. One of them was whistling and singing along to the salsa music playing cheerfully in the background.
When the next course arrived, I could hardly stifle the giggle. Our chicken quesadilla was smiling right at me, with sour cream and salsa for the eyes. I took this as a good omen and went right for one of the pieces in the middle. Melted cheese and refried beans oozed out onto the plate. As I took my first bite I was surprised to discover that unlike the usual cubed pieces of grilled breast meat I was enjoying sumptuous morsels of slow cooked meat, pulled from the bone. One after the other, each dish was making me fuller and happier. The quesadilla was smiling back at me as I smiled at Morgana and she smiled at the friendly men at the next table. This dish also came with a green salad and I think next time I will try the tofu version, just to see how they do it. Chicken quesadilla, $8.95.
Since we had a little extra room left and were still craving more from that incredible, mysterious woman in the kitchen, Morgana and I decided to each order a dessert and share those too. I ordered the flan (not the kind with crust and gelled fruit topping, more like a creme caramel) and Mo ordered the Mexican fried ice cream. Our server told us it would be a bit of a wait because the kitchen had to heat up fresh oil. Heavenly! We didn't mind waiting at all. The flan came out with whipped cream on the side and a stewed strawberry sauce on top. Morgana's ice cream was utterly delightful, totally fantastic, and wonderfully decadent. The coating was crunchy and the whole dish was doused in sweet syrup of some kind.
As we swooned over our desserts, saying very little to one another but exchanging looks of deep satisfaction, a family of four came in with two young girls in pigtails between 2 and 5 years old. As mom and dad looked over the menu we heard squeals of delight. I turned to see what was going on and the mother looked up and said in an accent, "Sorry, we just haven't had these foods in so long." Reading the menu out to her daughters in Spanish, she paused here and there as her husband nodded eagerly in agreement and I couldn't stop myself. "You should really try the plantains. The best I've ever had. Amazing." They took my advice. Both the parents and Morgana and I were clearly on the same page - nothing ventured, nothing gained.