Before Buffalo acquired its current lineup of Mexican restaurants, I drove for hours searching for flavors I missed. In Medina, Mariachi de Oro restaurant and the seasonal taco trailer at the Monte Alban grocery store made an hour’s drive seem reasonable.
I followed clues scoured from anonymous Internet strangers to Albion (disappointing) and Geneseo, where I found encouraging enchiladas.
To what lengths was I willing to go? Some 92 miles, following the trail to Canandaigua. There, I found pork carnitas in green sauce whose transcendent lushness left me feeling like I wielded a divining rod for Mexican deliciousness. A feeling that lasted until I tried a stellar version at Rancho Viejo, where I stopped because I was merely driving by hungry.
It’s been open eight years. When I think of all the times I drove by in search of better Mexican, I just about want to turn in my chow-hunting credentials in shame.
Opened in Batavia in 2011 by Leon Ramirez, Rancho Viejo inhabits a former Ponderosa in the center of town. It’s 42 miles from downtown Buffalo, less than two miles from the Thruway exit.
At first blush it had all the hallmarks of a gringo-Mex operation: margaritas by the gallon, a menu long with exhaustive combinations of burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, and cheese sauce, definitions for customers unexposed to the finer points of Mexican cuisine (“burrito (bur-ree-toh)”). Gratis tortilla chips were warm, cool fine-grained salsa alive with garlic and flecked with cilantro.
When the plates started coming, I realized that if you pick your spots, some of the flavors here are worth going out of your way for.
Queso fundido ($6.25) was a rarebit dish with an ocean of white processed-cheese dip with islands of highly seasoned ground pork chorizo sausage poking out. Their orange grease dyed its surroundings as we scooped, a guilty pleasure of the first order.
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Chile Colorado ($12.25) was heartfelt cooking, strips of beef in a red sauce of coarsely ground dried-and-rehydrated chiles, with notes of sweet raisin and smoke. This vital gravy would have been a treat just spooned out on the fluffy rice, refried beans and tortillas that come with entrees. The well-done beef was chewy, though not objectionably so.
Chile verde ($13.50) is built on carnitas, pork shoulder that’s been cooked until the sweetness comes out, then shredded into bite-sized chunks and crisped on the grill.
That pork is available in a variety of forms, including tacos ($12.75). But the chile verde presentation made such swoonful sauce with the mingling of piggy richness and tang from the lime, tomatillo, cilantro and green chile in the verde that it would be a shame not to soak it into rice and scoop it up with tortillas.
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Al pastor tacos ($12.75) were another treat, nubs of chile-soaked pork cooked with pineapple and seared on the griddle before being loaded into three tacos. They didn’t deliver the chile intensity of my Taqueria los Mayas favorites, but were worthy.
At Rancho Viejo, customers are invited to doctor up their food with a full salsa bar, including salsa in three levels of chile heat, pickled onions, and, a rarity, complimentary shredded cheese, and sour cream.
A special of Pina Cancun ($16.50) was a half pineapple, hollowed out and filled with a fajita-ish mélange of chicken chunks, sliced steak, and pinky-sized shrimp, all glazed with cheese sauce. The shrimp were cooked properly, the beef tender, while I found the chopped chicken breast was cottony.
One of the values on the menu is majarra frita ($13.25), a whole fried tilapia, served with sliced fresh avocado, lime, lettuce, tomatoes and tortillas. Cactus mentioned on the menu was missing.
A dusting with spices before going into the fryer gave its skin a crackling quality, and its mild white filets came easily off the bones.
After our personable server walked away from our used dishes the second time I asked her to please remove them, and she did. Less than a month at work, she said, but her manager was attentive and immediately responded to a chipped margarita mug with an unchipped, full one.
Dessert was a bummer, because no matter how many times I see fried ice cream ($4.25), I still think it might be as good as Chi-Chi’s of blessed memory. Instead of a scoop of ice cream inside a crackling crust, this was a dairy orb clad in greasy cornflakes, loosely applied. The flour tortilla basket it came in was crisp, but the ice cream was sad.
Looking forward to the xangos ($4.75), a flour tortilla stuffed with cheesecake, for my fried sweet fix, I was surprised to find it filled with cake. Cinnamon-scented sponge, with no cheese.
I shrugged. After all the pleasant surprises, a couple wild pitches dropped the earned run average only a notch. Now that I know it’s there, Rancho Viejo will backstop my search when I strike out for major-league Mexican.
Rancho Viejo – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 12 Ellicott St., Batavia (elranchoviejo.us, 585-343-3903)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: appetizers, $5.25 to $12.99; entrees, $9.50 to $18.99.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: most dishes, excluding flour tortillas.