A sometimes exaggerated and romanticized version of cowboy culture is often part of the draw for tourists visiting Arizona, and many Western movies were filmed in the Grand Canyon State during the genre’s heyday. Underlying the stereotype of the American cowboy, however, there’s an earlier tradition of Mexican cattle wrangling embodied in the idea of the vaquero, a skilled horseman adept at managing a herd of cows with a lasso. Today, a South Phoenix restaurant known as Tacos mi Ranchito recalls vaquero life through its decor and its beef-oriented menu.
The restaurant’s name roughly translates into English as “tacos of my little ranch,” and the standalone building looks like it could be a ranch house, located not on the frontier, but instead just under half a mile of the light rail station currently under construction at Southern/Central. The red stucco building is surrounded by a patio for outdoor dining with ornate metal fencing that can also serve as a bike rack. Even before entering the restaurant, vaquero decor is evident in details like a sculpture of a man and horse over the entrance and a giant boot in back.
Inside, there are two small adjoining dining rooms with equine accessories like bridles, spurs, and stirrups adorning the walls and cattle skulls looking down on the diners belows. A small L-shaped bar is right behind the host station. The restaurant’s full name is Taco mi Ranchito Mexican Grill, and grilled meat, particularly carne asada, is a mainstay of the menu. That said, the kitchen can be equally skilled with seafood, making it a surf and turf destination that acknowledges both the cattle ranching of northern Mexico and the proximity of the ocean.
After being seated by the friendly and bilingual servers, all customers receive a complimentary basket of chips, some medium red salsa, and a little bit of a pinto bean soup that can be ladled onto the chips as desired. More substantial starters include guacamole, queso fundido, and a cheese crisp with the option to add either shrimp or chorizo to the disc of tortilla and melted cheese. The restaurant’s strength with seafood is also evident in appetizers of oysters, aguachiles, head-on shrimp in spicy sauce, and a mixed seafood platter designed to be shared.
With the word “tacos” in the restaurant’s name, that seems like an easy place to start exploring more of the restaurant’s menu. Tacos mi Ranchito offers street tacos sold on a la carte basis with house meats that emphasize beef in the form of carne asada, lengua, and cabeza. Pork is also represented in al pastor and carnitas preparations, and there’s chicken available as well. These tacos also serve as the foundations of combination platters in which slightly larger tacos, either soft (suaves) or fried and crunchy (dorados) are paired with rice and refried beans.
Other combination plates cover familiar territory, combining flautas, gorditas, burritos, enchiladas, and more into different configurations. Simpler plates include a strong version of bistec rancheros with steak in a sauce that incorporates chopped bell peppers and onions in a tomato base. A separate selection of seafood combos includes shrimp enchiladas in a tangy green sauce, as well as classics like camarones en diabo. A meatless option is the enchiladas estilo chihuahua, a serving of stacked enchiladas with cheese and onions between tortillas.
Tacos mi Ranchito serves a selection of soups as hearty entrees. Caldos of beef, shrimp, and siete mares (mixed seafood) are all available with generous hunks of protein served in a big bowl with potatoes, corn, cabbage, carrots, and two types of squash: chayote and zucchini. Rice and tortillas can be used to soak up the flavorful broth. The restaurant also serves menudo and pozole every day, rather than just on weekends. Mi Ranchito’s version of the latter is a red one with abundant tender pork and onions, cabbage, limes, and ultra-hot red salsa as garnishes.
A somewhat uncommon set of items on the menu here are the molcajete dishes. These entrees, which are big enough for two people to share, involve a vessel full of molten and spicy tomato-based sauce filled with slabs of cheese and meat or seafood. As the dish sits at the table, the cheese melts and blends with the sauce to form a smooth mix. One warning, though: While chorizo does well in this environment, meats like chicken that are prone to overcooking should be consumed first so as not to emerge tough after too much time in the volcanic vessel.
While the molcajete entrees are suitable for sharing, the parrilladas demand it. Priced for either two or three people, these are big platters with a choice of three meats, rice, beans, and tortillas for creating tacos at the table. Although there are no desserts listed on the menu and the staff do not routinely mention the possibility of them, an inquiry will reveal that flan, churros with ice cream, and rotating flavors of cheesecake are typically available for anyone with sufficient appetite left to enjoy them after a hearty meal of one of Taco mi Ranchito’s meaty entrees.
The small bar has tap handles for brews like Modelo and Dos Equis. Drinks served include multiple varieties of micheladas and margaritas. The mango version of the latter combines the sweetness of tropical fruit with the spice from a circle of Tajin around the rim of the glass. The restaurant is open seven days a week with an 8 AM opening time and a small breakfast menu. Tacos mi Ranchito is a long way from any working cattle ranch, but its location in the heart of South Phoenix makes it convenient for anyone who wants to eat like a hard-working vaquero.
6607 S. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85042
Southern/Central Station (under construction)