I usually scoff when I see the word authentic in big, bright letters over the door of a restaurant, as if the proprietors are trying to convince customers of something that isn't quite true. That skeptical attitude can backfire, though, because El Rancho Tapatio's authentic cuisine is some of the best, and most affordable, Mexican food I have had in a long time.
Is it possible to be in love with a tamal? The answer is yes when the corn meal is steamed in a banana leaf. Try the one stuffed with pork that has been simmered in the spicy green tomatillo-jalapeño sauce — which, in addition to the fine chunky tomato salsa, is one of five signature salsas served with chips; the others include a mild version, a searing pepper liquid and an avocado dipping sauce.
But don't overdo the chips, because fabulous starters are coming.
There are crunchy tostadas scattered with seviche of octopus or shrimp. Both are outstanding, bright with lime, diced onion and tomato, and cilantro. Those same seasonings are present in the guacamole, whose generous portion of rough-chopped avocado justifies its relatively high price of $3.50. Tacos can be snack food, too: small tortillas with cilantro, onion and a meat: steak, tongue, chicken or perhaps a little pork — braised carnitas, spicy chorizo sausage or chicharrons (deep-fried pork rinds).
These are lighter beginnings, but some other appetizers are really rich and hearty, could feed at least two, and cost, by comparison, a pittance.
Queso fundido, the baked cheese with chorizo and mushrooms, gets gooey and stringy and wonderful when melted. It is served with fresh corn tortillas — and fresh tortillas are a good indicator of authentic. This is a bit guiltier pleasure than other melted cheese dishes — fondue, for example — and at the bargain price of $6.99, it easily could begin a meal for four for slightly more than $1.50 a person. Or get sopes, thick tortillas topped with smooth-as-can-be refried beans and your choice of the meats I mentioned before —barbecued or fried, roasted, grilled or simmered — shredded lettuce, tomatoes and crumbled cotija cheese, Mexico's rendition of feta.
Go in a group so you can share starters and have room for entrees, all of which include delicious rice and beans.
Turn to the magnificent soups for a complete meal in a bowl. Whether it's beef, bean and bacon, aka carnes en su jugo; or the beef and vegetable, caldo de res with 3-inch pieces of potato, squash and a chunk of corn on the cob, the flavors will delight and astonish, as will the price: $5 for the enormous "medium" serving.
I enjoyed the comfort-food platter of carnitas with pico de gallo, but the real standouts were the cheese-filled chiles rellenos in a fluffy, spongy batter with just the right amount of heat from the poblano peppers ($8.25), and the main course of four (yes!) enchiladas verdes, full of tender shredded chicken in a tangy, silky tomatillo sauce ($6.99).
So, that group of you I mentioned, are you up for a last course?
If you are, try the flan Napolitano, which will broaden your understanding of this Mexican dessert. Instead of cloudlike baked custard, Napolitano more resembles a cheesecake with a fine caramel coating. If, however, you are a purist (as I now think I am), the classic version is available in a glass.
El Rancho Tapatio is a jewel in the crown of Lexington Mexican dining — delicious, reasonably priced and muy auténtico.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.