In the months following Hurricane Katrina, a number of small Mexican cafes opened in (among other places) the vicinity of North Claiborne at Elysian Fields. Their main clientele was the large number of Mexican workers who came to town to help us clean up the mess. This caught the attention of those of us who are always on the lookout for close-to-the-source ethnic food.
A number of these venturers had the same encomium when they called on the air to tell me what they found. “The place was exactly like El Ranchito used to be!” they said, with great excitement. “Remember El Ranchito?”
Of course I remember it. So does everyone who liked Mexican food in the 1960s and early 1970s, when there were few Mexican restaurants in the area. (Manuel’s Hot Tamales didn’t count.)
El Ranchito was not much like any of the post-K taquerias shops. But I can see to likeness. El Ranchito was a converted house set back from Elysian Fields, using the former yard as a parking lot, dwarfed by the enormous Jaeger’s Seafood Restaurant a half-block away. Only a green neon sign saying “El Ranchito” in script marked it as a restaurant.
The single dining room was stark and too bright. It was presided over by a waitress who. . . well, let’s say she took up more than her share of the available space. She never passed a table or chair without brushing it. If I remember right, her name was Bobbie.
Bobbie’s other outstanding quality was that she knew what was going on in the kitchen every night, and would tell you what would be a good idea to order. And what wouldn’t be. If you wanted to go counter to her suggestions, she’d argue the point. In fact, she was doing you a favor, and when she left the restaurant it never was quite as good.
The actual food was the work of Rosa “Mamita” Hernandez. For some time in the 1950s, she made hot tamales, which her husband sold from the corner of Canal and Broad Streets. Somewhere along the way, they took the concept upscale and opened El Ranchito.
Mamita was a first-generation Mexican American, and an older one at that. Born in 1902, she lived to be 105, living most of her life in New Orleans. However, her food was quite different from what’s being served in the taquerias opened by more recent immigrants.
The first thing you noticed was that the guacamole–ordered by everybody–was unique. It had the texture of mashed potatoes and the color of a newly-opened leaf. It came out in a beige, melamine bowl with a slice of cooked carrot on top, and a grating of cheese.
After that, most people got tacos, cheese enchiladas, tamales, and combo plates. But this place had on its menu something that has remained rare in New Orleans to this day: the bitter chocolate-based sauce called mole poblano. You could get it on chicken or on cheese-and-onion enchiladas. It was great, but only a few people ordered it.
Also good here was the chili. It was made with chopped meat–I think it may have been pork, not beef–and although it wasn’t spicy, it carried a big flavor in ways not familiar to most gringo palates. Mamita made all this stuff herself, from scratch.
One of the hallmarks of dining at El Ranchito was that you didn’t leave the place feeling inflated. The portions were modest, and prices even more so. Maybe that’s why it left the scene, when Mexican places like Dos Gringos came along with their mountain ranges of food on big sizzling platters. Mamita was not that showy.