Monday, April 2, 2012

Noticing The Color Purple

As part of my college coursework, I was asked at one point to read Alice Walker's The Color Purple. An amazing read all on its own, I have always remembered certain quotes, even decades after reading the book and watching the subsequent movie. Most memorable to me was when Shug and Celia are walking down the road and Shug says,

"I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it. "

It took me a while to figure out what that statement meant. My take on the phrase these days is that it is a real shame when you find something so simple, so perfect, so delicate and don't take the time to enjoy and appreciate it fully, it is wasted. It doesn't live up to its potential. I'm here today to tell you that I've found the color purple and it lives in a North Hill restaurant called Ranchero's Taqueria.

Ranchero's Taqueria was located at 286 East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue, Akron, OH 44310 and can be reached at 330-510-2110. Sadly, their web presence is almost completely off the grid. Parking was along the street, or more likely, the fairly large parking lot across from the restaurant.

Speaking of which, here was the front entrance:

Entrance to Ranchero's Taqueria in Akron, Ohio
What started out as a small operation has grown to include the space next to the original restaurant with a number of tables at which you can sit and enjoy your meal. After being seated, my server left me with the menu:

Ranchero's Taqueria's Menu Page 1
Ranchero's Taqueria's Menu Page 2
Ranchero's Taqueria's Menu Page 3
In addition to the menu, a small whiteboard hung on the wall by the beverage cooler and listed the daily specials. While the daily special during my first visit wasn't anything particularly interesting, I did note that Saturday was "mole" day and Sunday was "menudo" day.

As with every other Mexican restaurant, Ranchero's was quick to deliver fresh corn tortilla chips and salsa:

Tortilla Chips and Mild Salsa
During my second visit, my chips were accompanied by both a mild and a spicy version of salsa:

Tortilla Chips with Mild and Spicy Salsas
The chips were fresh and tasty, but nothing remarkable. The salsa, however, wasn't your traditional tomato, onion, jalapeno, lime, and cilantro. There was something else in the salsa that danced on my tongue -- a slight fruity sweetness. Not so much that it threw off the balance of flavors, but it was completely noticeable. It really added a nice brightness and uniqueness to Ranchero's version of this ubiquitous condiment. It made me think of peach or mango.

The menu was comprised of more traditional and less traditional dishes. If what you seek is your standard complement of burritos and enchiladas, smothered in tons of cheese, you can probably find it without too much trouble. And I'm okay with that because in addition to those more Americanized dishes, you can also find this:

Burritos Al Pastor and Carnitas
This was the Al Pastor and Carnitas Burrito combination with refried beans and Mexican rice. Seeing that the carnitas tacos also came dressed with nopales (aka cactus pads), I asked if my burrito could have the same and the kitchen happily complied. While the burritos did have finely shredded cheese on top of them, they also came sauced with a creamy queso bianca salsa. The sauce added a wonderful creaminess to each bite.

And speaking of bite, the al pastor burrito had a wonderful combination of savory, sweet and sour (from the pineapple). The carnitas burrito was also a real winner with the cactus salad adding to the overall flavor of the burrito. I think I finished both burritos in record time as they were so delicious. I'll talk about the beans and rice in another minute or so.

Of course, this write-up would not be complete without me going back for a second visit to check out the mole. Even as I sat down at the table and the waiter handed me the menu, I knew what I wanted. When my server came back to take my order, I simply said, "Mole." He then asked if I wanted flour tortillas with my meal or the more authentic corn variety. I asked for corn. During my first visit, my dinner had come out of the kitchen fairly quickly. This time, it took a few minutes. I suppose the anticipation was what had me checking my watch time and again.

Finally, my server approached my table with this incredible plate of goodness:

Chicken Mole
At every other restaurant in which I've ordered mole, the chicken has come pre-shredded. Adorned simply with freshly chopped cilantro, I thought Ranchero's was a thing of beauty to behold. While there are many different kinds of Mexican moles, one thing to note is that they are usually long-simmered complex sauces comprised of garlic, onions, chiles, spices, and seasonings. In addition to my chicken mole, my server also brought a foil wrapper with freshly steamed corn tortillas,

Corn Tortillas
and a separate plate filled with more of the refried beans and Mexican rice:

Refried Beans and Mexican Rice
I gingerly began to shred the chicken from the bones and discovered that the leg meat was hot, juicy, and incredibly tender. After separating meat from bone, I tossed the chicken in the sauce, grabbed two of the corn tortillas and ran a line of sauced chicken from one side to the other before folding it up. From first bite to last, I was in pure heaven. The chicken was luscious and soft, the tortillas added a small hit of sweetness and the mole added everything else.

As I let the flavors linger on my tongue, individual components of the sauce revealed themselves, like peeling layers of paint off a well-worn wall. There was heat from the chile, citrus notes from coriander seeds, earthiness from cumin, bitterness from chocolate (I'm guessing chocolate), pungency from garlic, and a whole host of other flavors -- each of which perfectly balanced the others, none of which took the lead. Was the mole spicy? My sinuses registered yes, but just barely.

As I savored the flavors, I felt the love that the chef put into this dish and I immediately realized I was seeing the color purple. After greedily chowing down on that first corn tortilla, I took my spoon, pooled some of the sauce in it and brought it to my lips. As I cleaned the spoon of its contents, I closed my eyes and savored the peeling layers all over again. Pure bliss.

I finished up the corn tortillas and the chicken mole before turning to the beans and rice. I appreciated the fact that the beans weren't smothered in melted queso fresco. I also thought that while both components were tasty and fresh, they weren't particularly interesting. Perhaps the beans and rice were there as supporting characters to the burritos and the chicken mole. I'm okay with that. While there were salt and pepper shakers on every table during both visits, everything I've had so far has been seasoned perfectly coming straight from the kitchen.

What amazed me more than the food was that as I sat there last Saturday waiting for my dinner to arrive that the restaurant wasn't completely packed. There were perhaps five tables filled when I arrived and only two when I left. Ranchero's Taqueria may be one of the best kept secrets in Akron right now. I suppose I am doing myself a disservice by telling you, gentle reader, about this hidden gem. But if you are a fan of authentic flavors, of delicious food, of food that will make you thankful that you have taste buds, you owe it to yourself to check this restaurant out.

I should mention that the cost of experiencing heaven in your mouth is roughly $10. I'll be back for the mole often and the menudo soon.

Ranchero's Taqueria on Urbanspoon


lesjiv said...

This is one of those places that people have been waxing poetic about for years, yet it never seems to fully catch on. We lived in the neighborhood for almost 10 years and there were never more than a few table occupied, altho' occasionally the counter would be crowded and lively thanks to some foodies who heard the call. The food there is wonderful, affordable, and the service is always amazing.

Kathy said...

I can't wait to try the mole and am sorry I missed going with you when you went this last time. I've lived in North Hill for 10 years and have driven past it countless times saying to myself "you need to go in there." When I finally did... heaven!!! I recommend the pork tamale's too.

Maybe we need a lunch date on $1 taco day Tom! :)

Teresa, said...

The world is full of "purple" if we just take the time to notice it. Wonderful post.

DianeS said...

I would love to get to this place with you sometime.

RyanWilliams said...

Thanks to your review, Tom, I'll FINALLY be able to talk my fiance into going to Ranchero's! (I've been trying for a long time now.)

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