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Taqueria El Ranchito
** 1/2
Out of a possible five
By Ryan DuVall
A basket of tacos from Taqueria El Ranchito on North Clinton. From left, carne asada, lengua and two al pastor.

Taqueria El Ranchito offers traditional fare, extensive menu

It didn't look like anything special, no different than many of the other quick-stop taco places in Fort Wayne.

It is a sort of a ramshackle place and seemed a bit sketchy given it shares a building with a sports bar next door. Taqueria El Ranchito on North Clinton Street offered the standard variety of tacos, fruit waters, tamales and menudo – in fact, one of the best menudos I have ever eaten. But there were a lot of things about this taqueria I wasn't expecting to find, and those things more than made up for its rather humble appearance.

It is a small place with just five booths. Take-out orders are most common, but when I dined there I was provided not just tableside service, but great tableside service. The young lady who waited on us never missed a beat, was friendly and appreciative of our business. But when I ordered that menudo, she wrinkled her nose up at me, which I found particularly odd given her roots and the fact that her mother not only makes it but puts her name next to it on the menu.

"I won't even eat that," she answered when I asked her about the face she made for the spicy, tripe-based soup that is a traditional Mexican hangover cure.

I have wrinkled my nose at a few menudos in my day, but Lorena's Special Menudo was flavorful without being funky. It is made fresh daily and the tripe was exquisitely cooked to be tender and not at all rubbery. The fiery red broth packed a punch and the cilantro gave it a fresh, herbaceous background.

As far as the unexpected surprises, the extent of the menu was the first one. El Ranchito had a big menu with not just traditional fare, but Tex-Mex and a few American offerings as well. But I stuck mostly to the traditional stuff as I just couldn't quantify trying a cheeseburger.

The best of the tacos was the carnitas. The pork was tender, juicy and seasoned nicely so it had a lot of inherent flavor. With fresh cilantro, diced raw onions and a little hot sauce from one of the three bottles on the table – a mild green, a spicy red with a strong roasted chili flavor and a mild orange with just a little habanero punch – they were great.

The carne asada and al pastor tacos were OK, but the al pastor was a bit too saucy and sweet for my liking. The only taco I did not like was the lengua (tongue) as it was more intense than the tripe and actually had a bit of a foul flavor.

I could not cry foul – or fowl, even – at the big chicken burrito. El Ranchito's was up to snuff with the chain places with a soft, steamed flour tortilla packed with tender chicken, cilantro, seasoned rice, whole beans – not refried – queso fresco and sour cream.

There were refried beans on the side, along with more of that rice, and those beans were decent with a hefty amount of melted mozzarella heaped on top. But the real interesting mozzarella-laden dish came from the American menu in the form of the mozzarella cheese fries.

The standard, frozen, crinkle-cut fries were crisp and not oily, and they were smothered with the stringy melted cheese, crumbled bacon, cilantro and a big scoop of sour cream. With a few squirts of salsa verde and a dunk in the ranch dip that accompanied them, they were killer.

The only dish that I really found fault with was the shrimp fajita. The shrimp were cooked with red, yellow and green peppers and onions. It was seasoned and had an OK flavor, but this fajita did not arrive on a sizzling platter. The shrimp mixture was on the plate with rice and refried beans and it was not charred or caramelized at all and came off more like a shrimp stir fry. Folded into a tortilla with some hot sauce, the smallish shrimp were just OK but not exactly what one expects when ordering a fajita.

El Ranchito also fell short in terms of pricing in a couple of areas. Soft drinks are not refilled for free, and the chips and salsa, which was the first thing I was asked if I wanted as soon as I sat down, carried a $3 charge. Given they are usually gratis at Mexican restaurants, I should have at least been told there was a charge for them because I assumed there wasn't.

That said, the chips and salsa were worth getting. The salsa was thick and alive with flavor, and the white corn chips were thin, crisp and nicely salted. The guacamole was also well worth the extra cost of chips because it was fresh and fabulous.

The final surprises at El Ranchito came at the end of one of my meals when my server made her last stop and asked if there was anything else she could bring us. I jokingly told her only if they had dessert, not expecting there to be dessert. But there was. It was fried ice cream, and it was better than I expected. A ball of creamy vanilla was encapsulated by a crunchy, sugary coating, it was flanked by three big heaps of whipped cream and it was all drizzled with a butterscotch and strawberry sauce.

It would have been the perfect finale had it not been for the last surprise, which was basically a bad joke on me. There was a hand-written sign near the front counter that said "Now serving coffee," and I thought that would be perfect with the fried ice cream.

Now I never expect a superb cup of Joe at a Mexican restaurant, but I sure wasn't expecting a mug of hot water and packet of instant grounds.

Restaurant: Taqueria El Ranchito

Address: 4104 N. Clinton St.

Phone: 341-7710

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Tacos ($2), menudo ($8), chicken burrito ($5.99), guacamole ($1.99), shrimp fajitas ($11.99), mozzarella fries ($5.99), fried ice cream ($3.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.