There's a new gem inside what was once Mencken's Cultured Pearl, across from the Hollins Market in Sowebo, an area in desperate need of new dining options.
The long, beautiful bar at Mi Ranchito (1116 Hollins St.,  528-9345, miranchitomd.com), lined with a long shelf of underlit liquor bottles, and the deep-red color of the walls provide a certain unexpected elegance to the environment inside the restaurant's lime-green facade. When we stopped in for a late lunch one day, we were the only people in the place, a situation we found again when we returned for dinner. Our server walked up to our table with a morose, distracted frown so exaggerated it seemed straight out of an Almodóvar film, and in fact, though the director is Spanish and not Latin-American, the entire night felt like it could have been taken straight from one of his movies-and we don't mean that in a bad way.
Mi Ranchito calls itself a Tex-Mex place, but it might more accurately be called Latin-American since they have no burritos, only one taco dish, one enchilada dish, and a quesadilla, but a wide variety of Peruvian saltados (a stir-fry), garnachas (fried dough topped with meat), and Salvadoran pupusas (El Salvador's delectable flat bread stuffed with cheese or meat and topped with a cabbage slaw, $2).
At least, that is, the menu said they had pupusas. When we visited for lunch, they didn't have any, and once again, at dinner, we were told there were no pupusas-strictly in Spanish. The server spoke absolutely no English and had to bring someone from the kitchen or take us to the computer where she entered the order when our limited Spanish wasn't sufficient.
To help the chips and delicious salsa go down, we started with some beers (Negra Modelo, $3.75) but later ordered margaritas ($8), which were big, good, and not too syrupy. We also got started with guacamole ($2.50 for a side), which is among the best in town, with big, fresh chunks of avocado and a lot of lime and cilantro.
As we scarfed down the guac, we were suddenly surrounded. As it turned out, the Hollins Market Community Association was holding a meeting in the restaurant. We moved to a table further back to give them room. Then another wave poured in and we moved yet again, where we were soon, once again, surrounded. Our server's somewhat lackadaisical demeanor had entirely transformed now into one of great efficiency-and friendliness to us, as if we were old-timers. And, whereas it would be entirely understandable to ignore a small party like ours in the face of this behemoth party of 50, the opposite happened. The staff doubled and our server heaped attention on us.
Which is not to say that we weren't a little sad when they started bringing out the plates to the other tables-and every single one had a pupusa. It felt like that "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld: "No pupusa for you!"
Nevertheless, we were mostly delighted with our own orders. If you've never had saltado, you should definitely order it. One of our companions described his chicken saltado ($9.95) as Latin poutine, which is not a bad description. Strips of chicken were sauteed in soy sauce and spices with onions and french fries. Yes, french fries. It was one of those dishes that is interesting and delicious as flavors combine in unexpected ways.
The plato Erika ($14.95), named after the owner's wife, features thinly sliced meat (beef and/or chicken) with an almost cajun-tasting spice, plantains, beans, rice, and fresh tortillas. Everything blended together perfectly in both texture and flavor (but it still didn't seem quite as good as the great Peruvian half-chickens being delivered to the tables all around us). The chicken was especially flavorful and worked nicely with the sweetness of the plantains. Our vegetarian friend was quite happy with her quesadilla ($7.50), though there was not much else on the menu (in the absence of the pupusas) that she could choose since Mi Ranchito, as the name might suggest, is quite meat-heavy. And some of that meat has a decidedly Southern feel-well, Southern to Baltimore, northern to Latin America. Both the plato criollo ($8.95) and the yuca con chicharron ($9.75) featured fried pork chops that wouldn't be out of place at a Sunday dinner somewhere in South Carolina or Tennessee. Though they were still a bit dry and salty, the pork chops worked with the criollo plate because the beans, rice, and salsa were juicy enough to make the thick, hard, chunks of fried pork palatable. The yuca dish was a complete failure. It was the dryest, blandest dish we've ever encountered. The yuca had the texture of giant french fries but none of the flavor-no flavor-and no sauce to offset the dryness, which only compounded that of the pork chops. It did come with cabbage slaw that makes pupusas so delicious, except that here it was just dry cabbage. Fortunately, the portions were big enough that we were able to politely ignore this plate.
The meeting was about to start and we were going to be asked to be quiet, we could tell. But before it did, our server came by, and in jest, we gestured at the 50 or so plates around the room and said, "Por que no pupusas para nosotros?" She smiled and returned with a glorious plate of hot pupusas with cabbage slaw that was not at all dry but dressed with the appropriate sauce. Ay dios mio, they were delicious.
Mi Ranchito hasn't been open long and there may have been a few kinks in the works, but it is worth traveling to Hollins Market for if you're not in the neighborhood. And to those who live nearby-like our dining companions, the community association-it is likely to be a treasure. (And by the way, guys, thanks for the pupusas. It seems that they must have ended up on your bill.)
Mi Ranchito is open daily from 11-1:30 a.m.