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Grande Grandeur

Rancho Grande
Robert Scheer

Cask and You Shall Receive: Rancho Grande owner George Cortez always has Mexican munchies available.

Superstar Mexican comfort food and relaxing atmosphere continue to make a south county legend well worth the drive

By Christina Waters

THERE ARE ESSENTIALLY TWO big reasons why we've been coming back to Rancho Grande for over 15 years--the unparalleled chile colorado and the awesome Georgie's special. Both these house hits are so good that after enough deprivation--never as long as a month--one of us makes significant eye contact with the other and says, "Rancho Grande!" At which point we both put on our shoes, grab the car keys and head out to Watsonville, where the Cortez family is ready to satisfy our craving.

To say that Rancho Grande's chile colorado and Georgie's special quesadilla are destination dishes--the chile so deeply mahogany, so impossibly complex, and the quesadilla so fiery and comforting--is not to scoff at the rest of the menu, which has kept this restaurant a legend for so long.

Now represented by George Cortez, who likes to maintain a high profile in his beloved restaurant, the Cortez family--led by Joe and Esther--started doing their restaurant thing more than 35 years ago. For many years, Rancho Grande was located in a long, low roadhouse out by the airport, moving down Freedom Boulevard to a much larger, more upscale place a few years ago. Sure, we missed the dark, funky atmosphere, but we looked on the bright side--even more people could discover and enjoy these wonderful family recipes.

We usually order one Corona (for him) and one Bohemia (for me--both $2.50) to wash down the killer vinegary house salsa and excellent crisp, salty chips. But on our most recent visit, I was feeling frankly festive and called for a shot of Sauza Conmemorativo. Hey, when in a Mexican eatery, I say, go with the traditional flow.

Well, anyway, out came those amazing chips with the fiery, vinegary salsa, and we proceeded to snack away like there was no mañana. Let me pause here to underline that last visual impression. The chips and red salsa offered upon seating at Rancho Grande are worth the trip--in fact, they're practically mythic.

In addition to our personal favorites--the afore- and oft-mentioned chile colorado ($7.50) and Georgie's special ($3.50)--we'd ordered the gargantuan enchiladas poblanas ($8.25), which my partner absolutely adores. While I am not among God's chosen enchilada fans, I can see the appeal of two huge moist tortillas bulging with shredded chicken and slathered in cinnamony, chocolaty, tamarind-scented sweet molé sauce.

The Georgie's is essentially just a quesadilla. A quesadilla with attitude. Two cheeses--plus lots of fat, pickled jalapeños, onions, bell peppers and tomatoes--pack this lightly roasted flour tortilla. It is a meal unto itself. Hot, pliant and oozing, it deserves an X rating any way you work your mouth around it.

But the chile colorado--succulent, tender beef drowning in a sauce of such boldness, yet such finesse, that it is actually labeled "Rancho Grande's Secret Sauce"--ah, that chile is the stuff of dreams. We fold some of it into soft, warm flour tortillas. Some of it we eat with a fork and spoon, sighing as we do. I sip some tequila, its bite making a nice edgy rendezvous with the rounded flavor of the chile. I wonder how I deserved such an abundance of deliciousness.

I don't wonder for too long. I just plain deserve it.

Rancho Grande

Address: 1205 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville
Phone: 722-1606
Hours: Mon.­Fri. 11am­9:30pm, Sat.­Sun. 8am­9:30pm.
Price: Inexpensive­moderate.
Ambiance: **1/2 It's a big, colorful dining hall with plenty of room to table hop and get loud.
Service: *** Right on top of things--you get help making your order, and foods arrive hot and fast.
Cuisine: *** Fine presentation, huge portions and homestyle pride in every dish.
Overall: No pretensions, just the real deal--and offers great dollar value.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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