Like most of the Mexican restaurants of Western New York, El Ranchito has a menu that looks familiar. This busy family restaurant, which opened in Clarence in December, serves the standards in generous helpings, mixing and matching beef and chicken and rice and beans and cheese. But this Mexican menu deserves careful reading. ¶ Among a dozen unusual dishes, I noted mojarra frita ($10.99), a whole fried tilapia served with rice, salad, cactus strips and tortillas. Camarones al chipotle ($12.99) is shrimp simmered in smoked jalapeño cream sauce. Molcajete ($15.99) is a combination of vegetables, meat and seafood served in an iron cauldron. ¶ We arrived with kids in tow and settled into our table for an early Saturday dinner. A steady stream of arriving dining patrons and departing takeout orders kept servers busy.
The full-page margarita and beer menu evokes thirsts you cannot quench, as there’s still no liquor license. We ordered mango and mandarin orange Jarritos, the fruity Mexican sodas ($2.25), among other drinks.
Warm tortilla chips and thin but flavorful salsa arrived swiftly, and the kids would have filled up on them before I cut them off.
We ordered a whole mess of things, including the molcajete and camarones al chipotle. Plus “La Bandera” ($10.99), a three enchilada plate; “El Combo” ($14.75), a chile relleno, taco, chalupa, enchilada and burrito ensemble; chicken and carne asada beef tacos (both $10.25); taco salad with chicken ($8.50); and chori pollo ($11.25), a chicken breast covered in Mexican sausage and cheese sauce.
From all that, there were two things I would return for specifically. One was the camarones, shrimp in a creamy, deeply smoky, spicy sauce with enough heat to intrigue but not overwhelm my palate. The moderate level of heat was surprising, considering the whole chipotles cooked right into the dish.
The second was the chile rellenos that I sampled, as part of El Combo. It was a whole roasted poblano with the stem still on that had been stuffed with cheese, dipped in batter and fried before being topped with chile gravy and more cheese. The fried batter had puffed up and encased its pepper-cheese payload completely, in a way that reminded me of Austin. The rest of El Combo was decent but average.
The chicken and beef in the tacos was plentiful, but dry and chewy. I kicked myself for not asking for the carnitas, because that braised pork looked good on other tables. The accompanying taco sauce was piquant but too spicy for the kids.
The chori pollo was an excellent version, with not-too-dry chicken breast topped with vividly flavored crumbled Mexican sausage.
Cat ordered mole sauce on one of the three enchiladas on her La Bandera plate. She didn’t get it. The shredded chicken in one enchilada was remarkably moist and enjoyable, the cheese and ground beef were average, the green tomatillo sauce a meek version. I’d seek more of that chicken next time.
My molcajete cut quite a figure, an iron bowl with a pig’s face that arrived sizzling, piled high with enough food for two. I had asked for the beef version, but got the combo, which turned out to be a mistake in my favor. Tomatoes, peppers, cactus and onions had been browned on a griddle and piled with steak, chicken, catfish and shrimp, topped with cheese and a roasted poblano pepper.
Despite being heaped together, the dish didn’t turn into a pile of mush, not even the catfish fillet. I enjoyed stuffing tortillas with the fixings, even more chewy chicken and beef strips.
The taco salad’s fried flour tortilla shell was admirably crispy, and I was glad to see more of that shredded chicken. Unfortunately, the sour cream, guacamole and cheese sauce combined to swamp the lettuce, tomatoes, beans and chicken.
The sides of beans and rice that come with most entrees featured firm, mild rice dotted with peas and carrot cubes, and faintly earthy, bland beans. We enjoyed simple guacamole ($3.25), fresh and still slightly chunky.
The fried ice cream ($4.25) was a scoop in a cereal coating and deep-fried, placed in a flour taco shell and covered with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It’s not easy to disappoint me with ice cream, but the fried shell was chewy and tasted like oil.
Sopapillas ($2.50), a simple sweet made of a fried flour tortilla, was dressed with cinnamon sugar, whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
The flan ($3.50) was cool and creamy but lacked the characteristic caramel.
El Ranchito serves ample portions of reasonably priced Mexican favorites, including at least a couple of dishes worth a detour.
El Ranchito: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Unexpected dishes, big plates of hearty Mexican favorites at Clarence family spot
WHERE: 9780 Main St., Clarence (320-5830)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Lunches, $5.50-$7.50; dinners, $8.50-$16.25.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.