El Ranchito, 3517 S Cooper St, Arl. 817-987-4560. 11am-9pm Sun, 11am-10pm Mon-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
Dallas Tex-Mex eatery El Ranchito began its western expansion by planting its flag in an unremarkable strip mall in the crown city for unremarkable strip malls: Arlington.
Not to be confused with the restaurant in White Settlement bearing the same name, the original El Ranchito has been an Oak Cliff institution for more than 30 years and is notorious for its near-theme-park level of kitsch. A mariachi band strolls the dining room, and the décor looks as if a Mexican flea market exploded. The second iteration of owners Laura and Oscar Sanchez’ place opened in Tarrant County back in October. Compared to its Dallas counterpart, the new version is a tad subdued –– although that’s a little like comparing two glitter bombs.
On a recent lunch visit, I was greeted by a taxidermied bull’s head above an impressive fireplace in the foyer; the animal’s countenance conveyed a look of remorse for not meeting a more heroic end. Once your eyes adjust to the colorful banners, clay rooster carafes, and other bric-a-brac, the menu of homey dressed-up Mexican classics (plus a few adventurous-sounding regional-specific options) feels like familiar Tex-Mex territory. A portion of El Ranchito’s menu is Northern Mexican-inspired, which is typically spicier than its southern counterpart and heavy on the seafood.
The service might have been the highlight of my whole visit. When I arrived, my server, Isai Ramos, whisked me to his section in one of the three conjoined dining rooms. With comfort as the watchword, he welcomed me with an authentic smile, light conversation, a few recommendations, and constant attention when I needed a new napkin or a refill. Ever the pro, he also intuited when I needed some alone time to enjoy my meal without interruption.
Salsa arrived shortly after I did, and El Ranchito’s version oozed freshness –– its vegetables partially ground in a molcajete and served with freshly made chips. Heavy on the jalapeño, the mélange was a thick mixture of classic ingredients tastefully applied: The white onions weren’t too bright, the tomatoes not overpowering, and the cilantro was more for show than flavor.
Between my obsessive bites of salsa-slathered chips, Ramos made two recommendations: the guiso norteño, a spicy beef stew with veggies, and the apparently more popular Cameron a la Oscar, a French-inspired shrimp dish named for Oscar Sanchez. I opted for the latter, which came with a side of Mexican rice and a baked potato –– an odd addition given the environment.
The French influence on the dish was unmistakable. Served in a savory white wine and butter sauce, specks of light chile flakes dappled over a bed of green bell peppers, white onions, and plump shrimp. Sporadic mushrooms and a touch of tomato gave the dish a little more character, but the whole timbre of the plate was overpowered by the unexpectedly heavy beurre blanc.
The heat of the sauce continued to cook the components, so eventually everything, including my appetite, softened. Had the kitchen thrown the titular ingredient on the grill for just a minute, its flavor would have been locked in and added a smoky contrast to the butter. Instead, the crustaceans were a chewy mess, the vegetables mush, and the sauce overwhelming. The accompanying rice was fluffy and delicious. The baked potato? A bland albeit eccentric touch.
The concept of El Ranchito’s flagship dish is appealing. Who wouldn’t want to explore an artful fusion of French and Mexican cuisines? The problem was in its execution. Still, the space was comfortable, the staff congenial to the point of genuine friendliness, and the rest of the menu reads well –– just make sure you choose something that sounds good to you instead of relying on your nice server.
Camarones A La Oscar $16.95