Posted On: 09/01/2011
The front of Tienda el Ranchito in Fairmont City, Ill., is a market with a deli, handmade sweets and pastries, and loads of other supplies – from candy to cleaning products – that you’d expect at a Mexican grocery. Walk all the way through the market and you’ll find a little gem of a restaurant, decorated with Latin-American artwork, brightly colored murals, and green-tiled roofs over the entrance and some of the tables.
The menu at the “Little Ranch Store” is filled with typical Mexican dishes – enchiladas, tamales, chile rellenos, burritos and tacos – but typical they are not. Tienda’s chiles rellenos were served naked with beans and rice. The two beautiful poblano peppers were stuffed with a mild cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, rolled with cornmeal, and fried until they proffered a golden, molten treasure. The texture of the peppers was delightfully tender, but between the mild pepper and mild cheese filling, the dish was a bit too one-note – something a slightly hotter pepper or a bolder goat or Oaxacan cheese might remedy. However, the tamales – made with the finest ground cornmeal and delicately flavored braised pork, finished with a little Mexican crema – were stunningly elegant.
If you’re in the mood for a bowl of home-cooked love (and trust us, you should be), visit Tienda on Saturday or Sunday when the restaurant prepares its soups. Don’t miss the posole – a rich tomato broth touting braised pork and tender hominy – or the siete mares (seven seas) fish soup. This lighter fish broth was enriched with carrots, celery and a few potatoes, but it was the shrimp, crab, mussels, clams, squid and other assorted swimmers that drove the dish and were served alongside flour tortillas, handmade by the chef to order.
The tacos, meanwhile, were hands down Dan’s favorite. These weren’t American tacos, with crunchy shells, ground beef, lettuce and yellow cheese. Nope, these were the kind of tacos you find from street vendors in Mexico: Corn tortillas, warm and soft, stacked atop one another and topped with your choice of meat, fresh chopped onions, cilantro and lime. The selection of meat was extensive. The more common offerings like steak, carnitas (slow-cooked pork), eggs and chorizo were all very good, but we preferred those you don’t find at a Chevy’s or Qdoba: al pastor, barbacoa, lengua, tripas and cabeza.
Traditionally, al pastor is marinated pork, sliced thin and roasted on a vertical spit similar to how gyro meat is prepared. At Ranchito, the big display of meat slowly roasting and being sliced to order was absent – but the flavor wasn’t. The meat had a spectacular richness from the guajillo chiles and a subtle sweetness from the pineapple juice in the marinade. It was the best al pastor Dan has had locally.
Tienda’s barbacoa option showcased steamed goat. While barbacoa is traditionally cooked overnight buried in a hole in the ground with volcanic rock, we’re assuming this was steamed inside. And that’s just fine with us, since the meat was quite tender with a consistency similar to that of perfectly prepared pulled pork. The slight gaminess of the meat gave it a richness and complexity that my sons enjoyed and insisted on ordering again.
The lengua, or beef tongue, was boiled with onions and spices until tender then cut into small pieces and sautéed to serve. The tongue was tender and mild – definitely worth a try. Tripas, or beef tripe, is the stomach of the cow that’s cut into small pieces and boiled in salt water until tender, then fried or sautéed. It had a slight earthiness to it that was extremely satisfying.
We saved the best for last: the cabeza. Cabeza simply means “head,” and at Tienda, it means cow’s head. The fat is well-incorporated into the meat, creating a rich and unctuous flavor. Once you try a taco de cabeza you’ll wonder why you ever ordered a steak version.
We know steamed goat, tongue, beef stomach and cow head might seem a little weird to some people, but our kids tried and loved them all, not to mention the satisfaction we all felt in eating parts of the animal that are often forgotten. Maybe it’s because I recently read Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast, or maybe it’s the thrill of trying something new and wondering why I haven’t had it before. In any case, head over to Tienda, grab a cold one, and try some cabeza – you’ll be glad you did.
FILLING UP FOR $20 OR LESS
WHERE: Tienda el Ranchito, 2565 N. 32nd St., Fairmont City, Ill., 618.875.1521
WHEN: Daily – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
DINE-IN-ABILITY: Spacious restaurant with carryout available, generous Mexican grocery as well
TRY IT YOU’LL LIKE IT: Any taco, tamales, posole and seita mares on weekends
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