A while back, a reader and e-mail buddy of mine recommended that I try a new restaurant in Sandy called Carolina Authentic Mexican Food; I was especially looking forward to the pot-roast burrito he’d mentioned. But alas, he who hesitates bungles the burrito. By the time I got around to driving out to Sandy last week to visit Carolina, the place was boarded up.
Luckily, a few steps away from where Carolina had been located was another Mexican restaurant, Mi Ranchito Grill. So with an empty belly and a hankering for south-of-the-border fare, I decided to check out the lunch buffet at Mi Ranchito. My bad. Eating at Mi Ranchito Grill was such a dismal experience that I’m even more dejected now about having missed out on Carolina Authentic Mexican Food.
Perhaps for $8.99 (drink included), I shouldn’t expect much. And maybe it’s unfair to judge a restaurant based on a buffet. On the other hand, I figured a sampling of foods from the Mi Ranchito Grill buffet would be a good indicator of whether or not to return for dinner. It was. I won’t.
It’s an attractive place'a stand-alone restaurant with all the requisite Mexican doodads on the walls. That should have been a warning sign, because I can’t think of a single Mexican restaurant that I’ve really loved which had anything going for it in terms of dÃ©cor. It seems to be a truism of Mexican eateries that the best ones are the least attractive.
It’s wasn’t really that the food I tried at Mi Ranchito Grill was bad; it was merely undistinguished and indistinguishable. On the Mi Ranchito Grill Website, there’s a photo of a waiter standing in front of three plates of food. They appear to be combination plates, and it’s virtually impossible to tell what’s on each one. Each has that yellow-orange hue that usually comes from smothering everything with cheese.
Indeed, the burritos at Mi Ranchito Grill are virtually indistinguishable, in both color and flavor, from the enchiladas, which in turn are virtually indistinguishable from the tamales. There were taco-like half-moon-shaped flour tortillas stuffed with something cream-colored. It might have been chunks of almost melted cheese or it might have been potatoes; I couldn’t tell from the flavor or texture. Chicken-stuffed (I think) flautas were so overcooked, dry and hard that my main concern wasn’t the lack of flavor but how harmful the flauta shards might be to my gums.
On the plus side, there was a woman making homemade flour tortillas and the frijoles de olla'pinto beans simply cooked and served in bean broth'were quite good. Bottom line: If $8.99 seems like a reasonable price for tortillas and beans, then go for it. Perhaps you’ll even return for dinner. That is, unless you happen to notice the thick, gray-black webs of dust that hang from a particular artificial plant'if it had been real, it would have died long ago'perched next to the window at one end of the buffet. Once you see that, I defy you to not lose your appetite.
So often, less is more. Tamale Kitchen stands in stark contrast to Mi Ranchito in almost every way. The former lists about 20 main dishes and combination plates on its menu, in comparison to well over 100 for Mi Ranchito. And although they lack the dÃ©cor, size and full cantina of Mi Ranchito, Tamale Kitchen'with no bar at all'is, hands-down, the better restaurant. This one was also recommended to me by readers'a couple of displaced Texans named Jim and Mary Ann who sung the praises of the tamales at Tamale Kitchen, and justifiably so.
In a space that was formerly a Wally’s Donuts, Tamale Kitchen still looks like a doughnut shop but with a few sombreros and Mexican blankets hung here and there. It’s owned by a couple of New Mexican sisters, Dixie Trujillo and Marcella Lomheim, who do everything at Tamale Kitchen, from waiting tables to making tamales from scratch. It takes strong-willed women to compete in the Mexican restaurant universe here in Utah. Dixie reminds me a lot of my mom, a strong-willed woman who ran her own businesses, competed in rodeos and loved Mexican food. She, however, couldn’t cook it. Dixie and Marcella can.
Maybe it’s Tamale Kitchen’s proximity next door to a needlepoint store and an honest-to-God barber shop with an honest-to-God barber pole, but the restaurant attracts a lot of seniors. On my first visit to Tamale Kitchen at lunchtime, a couple of old soldiers were sitting at the counter sipping coffee and discussing the events of the day, enjoying the leisurely pace that dominates the restaurant. On their way out, Dixie waved and gave a friendly shout, “Come see us again!” It’s that kind of place.
This is why you go: Each week Dixie and Marcella make by hand anywhere from 50- to 80-dozen fresh tamales. Beef, chicken and pork tamales are usually available with a choice of red- or green-chile sauce. Ã€ la carte, they are a mere $1.30. The masa is exceptional: Not too dry, nor too moist, with just the right thickness quotient. Each is a bit larger than a 50-ring Belicoso-shaped Cuban cigar and each tastes like heaven. But then, so do the stuffed sopaipillas, burritos, open-faced enchiladas and especially the carne adovada'thinly sliced pork bathed in a fresh and zippy New Mexico-style red chile sauce. Bonus: Combination plates, most of which run $5-$7, include not only rice and refried beans but also a hot, steaming with honey.
My advice: Haul buns to Tamale Kitchen today. Don’t wait for tamale.