Rancho Bravo, the Beacon on the Hill

Once upon a time, roughly Spring 2008, Capitol Hill lost two of its most cherished fast food establishments on the perimeter of Cal Anderson Park: the Jack in the Box, long known for its resident drug addicts, and KFC, whose noxious chicken-ish fumes emanated for blocks.

While the Jack in the Box location was swallowed by Light Rail construction, many speculated J in the B would move into the space left vacant by KFC. And the many waited, and waited. Then, one young spring day in April of 2009, a single vinyl banner with a smiling bull appeared in the window of the sad, shadowy interior. Word traveled fast. And soon, what seemed like a story too good to be true was confirmed: Rancho Bravo, an acclaimed taco truck previously parked in Wallingford, would open a location in the old KFC. Keeping the stripped-down fast food decor intact, Rancho Bravo merely fired up the kitchen, opened the doors, and a cheap foodie haven was born.

Since opening a year ago, very little has changed. Although the kitchen is roughly ten times bigger than the inside of a taco truck, the food preparation remains minimalist and confined to a couple burners, the horchata is still served out of a large white bucket, and the chunky KFC furniture and bare white walls remain untouched. A few improvements have been made, however: Rancho Bravo now accepts credit cards, and they are open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, which makes for a lively fishbowl experience as last-callers stumble in for tacos. But above all, one thing has remained the same: Rancho Bravo is cheap and good, and satisfies that taco truck craving without having to leave the Pike/Pine corridor (god forbid).

There are other Mexican restaurants within spitting distance of Rancho Bravo that gun for the same adoration: Taco Del Mar, whose food is just as quick but infinitely blander, and Tacos Guaymas, whose menu is far more comprehensive and who, with nearly 10 different types, definitely wins the battle for best aguas frescas. But for consistent and affordable Mexican fare, Rancho Bravo reigns supreme, and not just because of its novelty ambiance.

Full disclosure: I am a Rancho Bravo devotee. As someone who was raised on San Francisco's Mission District burritos, my palate will not be swayed by anything less than simple, standout ingredients, and Rancho Bravo delivers. I don't eat red meat, so I defer to those who rave about the pozole--pork stew for $3.50-- and chorizo. But, to my delight, it's the chicken here that's the clear winner.

Chicken is too often given the afterthought treatment at taco trucks who consider it an inferior meat, but here the pollo shines, whether captured between two grill-toasted pieces of bread and refried beans in the torta or heaped into the quesadilla. No grizzle, not overcooked, chopped into plump, perfectly seasoned morsels generously stuffed into your dish of choice. Rancho Bravo's chicken mole disappoints those looking for the deep chocolatey spice of homemade mole simmered over days, but if you're looking for good chicken in a tangy brown sauce, it's worth a try.

Tacos liberally garnished with radish, cilantro and diced onions upon two fresh corn tortillas are only $2 apiece, and the priciest thing on the menu is the Bravo Burrito for $4.75, a steal for those of us who like our sour cream and guacamole. Tamales go for $1.50 and sell out faster than any other dish here; they're solid, but a bit smaller and oilier than I'm used to.

The sleeper hit is the Vegetarian Burrito. A combo of zucchini, bell peppers and onions with black beans and rice, it's a heartier and arguably healthier option than what you'd get at a Pita Pit. They have a rice-and-bean-bowl option, but why forsake the burrito its tortilla when it's wrapped up so compactly in tin foil?

But for the very best thing at Rancho Bravo, you'd have to hand it to the torta, which Jonathan Kauffman raved about last year: a damn-near-perfect sandwich for the criminally low price of $4.25. For the uninitiated, it's like if a bahn mi and a panini sandwich had a delicious, Mexican child.

Last summer, many picnicked with the one-two punch of Rancho Bravo and Molly Moon's, just two storefronts down where a decadent scoop of ice cream costs as much as a small quesadilla. This summer, with Elliott Bay Book Company and Everyday Music opening across the street, Rancho Bravo becomes the anchor-- nay, the beacon-- on the Hill's most promising block. For a foolproof weekend plan, browse records and thumb through books until famished, journey to Rancho Bravo for a chicken torta and a large horchata (careful, they're enormous), then stake out a nice patch of grass or turf at Cal Anderson Park and revel in how affordable and satisfying life can be.

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