Location: 346 Atwood St., Oakland. 412-535-8240
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight
Prices: Appetizers $6-12; entrees $8-14
Atmosphere: Dimly lit, brightly colored
Liquor: Full bar
Our appetites for Mexican food were stoked: We had recently returned from a long weekend in Austin, Texas, famed home of tacos, barbecue and under-bridge-dwelling bats. We did our part to "keep Austin weird," eating at several local establishments of note, but we promise that our heads weren't turned by a couple days' worth of genuine Tex-Mex and fairly auténtico Mexican food.
Our discovery that La Fiesta, the other Mexican restaurant on Atwood Street, has been replaced by Mi Ranchito, a similarly unpretentious but noticeably upgraded establishment, seemed like an excellent opportunity to put our palates to the test: How would Pittsburgh stack up to our dining experience in Texas? We weren't too worried, because it took only a glance at the menu to see that this isn't your father's Pittsburgh Mexican restaurant. Sure, there are the obligatory burritos and enchiladas, but there are also tongue tacos, goat dishes and three shrimp entrees that aren't fajitas.
Swilling Coronas (because, margarita mix? Really?) and munching on crispy complementary chips and serviceable tomato salsa, we perused the rest of the menu. Most of the appetizers were of the nachos-and-wings type; we went with a steak quesadilla. Of course, it's hard to go wrong with toasted tortillas enfolding melted cheese, but we liked the big chunks of steak in Mi Ranchito's, and the diced red pepper which added a sweet, vegetal note.
Jason went with tacos, tacos and more tacos: three fish tacos served as a full platter with rice and beans, plus meat tacos, which he ordered a la carte. Although the menu promised fried tempura fish, what the fish tacos contained was simply a sautéed white fish, with neither crust nor crispy edges to add flavor and texture. Which was a shame, because the shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and "signature cream sauce" were delicious, and the corn tortilla, fresh and moist, was excellent. Amid all this, the fish got a little lost.
In the chorizo taco, chorizo (the sausage) was rich, intensely flavored, and just slightly spicy. As for the taco al pastor (pork, onion and pineapple), the chopped pork was seared, although not quite charred, and enlivened by the zing of raw onion. Jason couldn't see any pineapple, but he tasted sweetness, so perhaps Mi Ranchito simply uses crushed or minced; he didn't really object, as he finds big chunks of fruit in his meat taco distracting. The biggest flaw was that some of the pork pieces were chewy, as if the meat hadn't been trimmed quite well enough. This was a shame, because the tacos were otherwise good enough to stand up to what we sampled in Texas.
Let it not be said that every Mexican dish we tried in Texas was superlative. We had a lot of shrimp that was too salty for our tastes, and so it was at Mi Ranchito, where the poor little crustaceans were practically pickled by the salt in a deep burgundy sauce. Camarones a la diabla should be a spicy dish, and it was, but the flavors of chile guajillo, butter and garlic -- not to mention a dozen or so large shrimp -- were overwhelmed by the saltiness.
Angelique ordered the barabacoa -- goat cooked "Mi Ranchito style" -- and crossed her fingers; she's been dished up a lot of tough goat in her day. Mi Ranchito's was wonderfully tender, if not particularly flavorful. Fortunately, the dish was served with condiments -- a cup of diced onion and cilantro and another of salsa verde -- which invigorated the meat's flavor considerably, though not as much as a good marinade might have.
We don't put much stock in the sides at Mexican restaurants -- the refried beans and rice are rarely more than afterthoughts -- but Mi Ranchito's were unusually disappointing. The beans were a bit underdone and the rice had an off flavor, perhaps from too much of the achiote that colored it yellow.
Sides aside, Mi Ranchito suffers not from inauthenticity -- its best (and worst) dishes stand up just fine to Tex-Mex from the source -- but from inconsistency. Still, it's worth a visit, and much closer than Texas.