Restaurant in Review: El Ranchito
Having spent several years in South Florida, I can definitely say that my palette was heavily influenced by the Hispanic, Latino, and Caribbean food that I experienced there. Although ultimately, urban living was not for me, I grew to enjoy the authenticity of the food served by the locals. That being said, it's really hard to find really good, true Mexican food in Spring Hill.
Or so I thought.
El Ranchito occupies a corner unit of the Spring Hill Plaza on Spring Hill Drive near Kass Circle. The exterior is bright and cheerful, with colored lights lining the windows, and a few tables sitting outdoors for when the weather is fair. The interior is just as sunny, with sombreros and artwork hanging on the walls. Booths run up and down the sides, with a smattering of tables in the middle of the room. It's a small space, but it's filled with amazing smells as soon as you walk in. It has a mom-and-pop feel to it, which is accurate, since it's a locally owned restaurant.
This spot has been an on-again and off-again favorite of mine and Wendy, Transaction Coordinator to The Hardy Team and my fellow lunch adventurer. Believe it or not, there a lot of restaurants in our area that are closed on Mondays. It's understandable - everyone needs a day off! But El Ranchito is open on Mondays, so we take advantage and have added it into our regular rotation. It's the closest thing I've discovered to actual Mexican food in Hernando County, and as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Or maybe in this case, the salsa.
Speaking of salsa, it's the first thing that's brought to the table, right after your drinks, along with a basket of warm tortilla chips. Typical restaurant fare, of course. But the salsa is definitely fresh and homemade; it has just enough heat to make it interesting, but not enough to make it unenjoyable for folks who don't like as much spice. This is no chain restaurant, and they're not serving anything that comes frozen in a bag to be reheated and pushed through a window. Instead, they offer classic Mexican dishes, like arroz con pollos, chiles rellenos, pork carnitas, enchiladas, and more. But they also have more traditional Mexican-American fare, like quesadillas, chimichangas, and nachos. The fajitas seem to be a house speciality; we've seen (and heard and smelled) the sizzling platters being delivered to other tables, and they are nothing short of impressive. The white queso cheese dip is a must-try for the cheese lovers out there. It's a little thinner than what most Americans think of as "traditional" queso, but the flavor is out of this world delicious, and even better when paired with the salsa.
Although the chicken chimichanga is one of our favorites (and also the Monday lunch special), I deviated from the norm and opted for the tacos Mexicanos. Think Mexican street taco versus a crispy-shelled Tex-Mex creation. Three may sound like a lot of tacos to some people, but these aren't made with the large flour tortillas or the giant crunchy shells that many restaurants use. The corn tortillas are smaller, soft, and made by hand, which makes a world of difference in both taste and texture. The tortillas are heated before being filled with your choice of meat (chicken, pork carnitas, or chorizo), chopped onions, and fresh cilantro. They're served with some lime wedges and a side of the salsa verde - also fresh and homemade, but with considerably more heat than the regular salsa. I chose pork carnitas, one of my favorite things to eat on this planet. Without a doubt, these are some of the best tacos I've ever had, here in Hernando County, or otherwise. The homemade tortillas had just the right amount of crisp, but were still wonderfully soft with a nice chew. The pork was both flavorful and plentiful, with the onions and cilantro providing a balance of fresh and savory flavor, as well as a bit of crunch. The salsa verde I added in small amounts until I found a level of heat I was comfortable with, and the brightness of both the salsa and the lime added the perfect amount of acidity to round out each fantastic bite.
I also added a tamal to my tacos, as they do not come with other sides (many of their meals usually do - the refried beans are simply delish). A tamal, or tamale, as they're more commonly known here, is a delectable dish, similar to a filled dumpling. It is comprised of a pork filling wrapped in a fresh masa (corn) meal mixture, which is then wrapped again in a wet corn husk and steamed until done. In Mexico, the making of tamales is nearly a sacred rite, and many families pass down their own recipes from generation to generation. El Ranchito serves their rendition of this traditional food covered in a delightful brown gravy and a drizzle of their white queso. The masa portion was tender and fairly moist to begin with, but I'm a saucy kinda girl - if there's a sauce that comes with something, I'm all for it. The gravy (or sauce? I'm honestly not sure which they'd label it) was savory, and it helps provide some extra moisture and another level of flavor to the tamal. The pork filling inside is very flavorful. If I had one critique of the tamal, I would ask for a tiny bit more filling and a tiny bit less masa. But that's just a personal preference. Regardless, it was still a wonderful addition to my meal overall.
I also must add a note about the service, which has always been top-notch every time we've eaten there. We're always greeted warmly at the door and the staff is always friendly and willing to answer questions about the menu. They make recommendations, and are always happy to accommodate requests for an extra side of lemon or salsa verde. I would say most of the reason that the atmosphere is so cheery there is because of the amazing people. If the delicious food doesn't seal the deal, the quality of service will.
El Ranchito is located at 7335 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill, FL 34606. They're open Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 9 PM, and on Saturday from 12 PM - 9 PM. They are available by phone at (352) 688-4005, should you have any questions or would like to call in an order. You can check out their full menu on their website, or visit them on Facebook, too. If you're looking for authentic Mexican food that doesn't come out of a paper bag with a bell on the side, you should definitely give this place a shot!