Hispanic supermarkets have become a big business in the United States, appealing to shoppers of all backgrounds and attracting private equity investment to fuel ambitious growth plans. There are established brands in most parts of the country, and regional chains from outside Arizona have been expanding in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, sometimes with controversy. As with grocery stores of any type, there can still be a niche for locally owned stores. El Rancho Market is one of them, with just two stores operating as part of the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA).
El Rancho’s Phoenix store (The other is in Chandler.) is located at the southeast corner of 19th and Dunlap Avenues, across the street from that intersection’s light rail station. It’s a bright spot at a crossroads defined mostly by convenience stores and gas stations. While this area has yet to see much momentum in terms of transit-oriented development, the shopping center that El Rancho anchors, known as El Monte Plaza, is cleaner and more appealing than other retail in the area. The only feature conspicuously missing from the complex is a bike rack of any type.
Look for El Rancho at the center of El Monte Plaza. Tall palm trees and other greenery mark the front of the market. Among the red signs overhead, one says “Cocina,” and that’s the part of the market that functions as an informal cafeteria-style restaurant. The market atmosphere sometimes extends beyond the store’s doors with vendors selling cookware and other products outside. Just after entering, head to the left to find the Cocina, which is surrounded by two bakeries, one for tortillas and the other for pastry, as well as the grocery’s produce section.
Customers form a line to order from a counter. There’s an overhead menu, but it is somewhat confusing and out-of-date. What’s often the best approach is to look not up, but down at the steam trays full of freshly prepared foods, most of them falling into the category of guisados, stews or at least stew-like entrees involving meats and vegetables in sauce. A nearly constant offering is chicken mole with pieces of bone-in poultry simmered in a dark, complex sauce. Chiles rellenos also appear frequently with stuffed peppers in a rich gravy of their own.
Other items recently sampled have included carnitas in a stew dominated by tomatoes and peppers, camarones rancheros featuring shrimp in a zesty sauce, and chicken fajitas, served not on the stereotypical sizzling platter brought to the table, but fresh nonetheless from being prepared on a griddle located in plain sight further down the cafeteria line. Although the guisados are often centered around meat, calabacitas, when available, present an appealing vegetarian choice with a mixture of squash, peppers, and tomatoes in a meatless stew.
The guisados can be ordered one-at-a-time or two can be paired on the same plate. Regardless, the meals are then accessorized with rice, a choice of creamy refried or whole black beans, and fresh corn tortillas made inside the store right next to the Cocina. Red and green salsa, both moderately spiced, are also available upon request. Once everything is placed by the staff on a cafeteria tray, customers pay for their food and find a place to sit at one of five picnic tables in a central dining area. Be prepared to share a table during busy times.
While the guisados are the most visible output of the Cocina, the counter offers Mexican favorites like enchiladas, tamales, tacos, burritos, sopes, huaraches and tortas with meat fillings such as carne asada or al pastor pork. One standout item is the tacos de alambre, a pair of them prepared with carne asada that is mixed with a bit of bacon and peppers. Beyond rice and beans, side dishes available to order can include nopales, sauteed pieces of prickly pear cactus pads known for their slightly tart taste, texture similar to bell peppers, and nutritional benefits.
A staple of most supermarket food service operations is roasted chickens. El Rancho serves a half bird with rice, beans, and a small salad on the plate, as well as some salsa and tortillas on the side. Big bowls of soup are another option from the Cocina. Cocido de res is a hearty beef soup replete with corn, carrots, cabbage, squash, and potatoes. Garnishes include minced cilantro, diced onions, salsa roja, rice, and lemon wedges. On weekends, options expand to include pozole, menudo, seafood-intensive caldo siete mares, and birria made with goat meat.
For dessert, the Cocina per se usually has a few items like cups of flan or slices of tres leches cake at the counter for convenience. For a broader selection, a quick stroll to the panaderia next to the Cocina allows for a selection of fresh pastry including Mexican classics like conchas, sweet breads in the shape of a seashell. The counter on the other side of the picnic tables yields cups full of fresh mango that can be topped with Tajin and chamoy, fresas con crema, and arroz con leche. That counter is also the place for a beverage with a selection of aguas frescas.
Those drinks vary from day to day but almost always include popular favorites such as horchata and jamaica. Some of the rotating choices combine sweet and savory aspects. Pineapple, or pina, has appeared side-by-side with both spinach and cucumber at different times. El Rancho has a liquor aisle but it is not set up for on-premises consumption, so any beer purchased should be enjoyed at home. As supermarkets serving Latino populations continue to expand and growing chains eye Arizona, El Rancho continues to serve some local flavor in the Cocina.
8901 N 19th Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021