Mexican and Mexican’t
The contrasting styles and flavors of Mi Ranchito Grill and Tamale Kitchen
by Ted Scheffler

9550 S. State
2020 E. 3300 South

A while back, a reader and e-mail buddy of mine recommended that I try a new restaurant in
Sandy called Carolina Authentic Mexican Food; I was especially looking forward to the pot-
roast burrito he’d mentioned. But alas, he who hesitates bungles the burrito. By the time I
got around to driving out to Sandy last week to visit Carolina, the place was boarded up.

Luckily, a few steps away from where Carolina had been located was another Mexican
restaurant, Mi Ranchito Grill. So with an empty belly and a hankering for south-of-the-border
fare, I decided to check out the lunch buffet at Mi Ranchito. My bad. Eating at Mi Ranchito
Grill was such a dismal experience that I’m even more dejected now about having missed out
on Carolina Authentic Mexican Food.

Perhaps for $8.99 (drink included), I shouldn’t expect much. And maybe it’s unfair to judge a
restaurant based on a buffet. On the other hand, I figured a sampling of foods from the Mi
Ranchito Grill buffet would be a good indicator of whether or not to return for dinner. It was.
I won’t.

It’s an attractive place—a stand-alone restaurant with all the requisite Mexican doodads on
the walls. That should have been a warning sign, because I can’t think of a single Mexican
restaurant that I’ve really loved which had anything going for it in terms of décor. It seems to
be a truism of Mexican eateries that the best ones are the least attractive.

It’s wasn’t really that the food I tried at Mi Ranchito Grill was bad; it was merely
undistinguished and indistinguishable. On the Mi Ranchito Grill Website, there’s a photo of a
waiter standing in front of three plates of food. They appear to be combination plates, and it’s
virtually impossible to tell what’s on each one. Each has that yellow-orange hue that usually
comes from smothering everything with cheese.

Indeed, the burritos at Mi Ranchito Grill are virtually indistinguishable, in both color and
flavor, from the enchiladas, which in turn are virtually indistinguishable from the tamales.
There were taco-like half-moon-shaped flour tortillas stuffed with something cream-colored. It
might have been chunks of almost melted cheese or it might have been potatoes; I couldn’t
tell from the flavor or texture. Chicken-stuffed (I think) flautas were so overcooked, dry and
hard that my main concern wasn’t the lack of flavor but how harmful the flauta shards might
be to my gums.

On the plus side, there was a woman making homemade flour tortillas and the frijoles de
olla—pinto beans simply cooked and served in bean broth—were quite good. Bottom line: If
$8.99 seems like a reasonable price for tortillas and beans, then go for it. Perhaps you’ll even
return for dinner. That is, unless you happen to notice the thick, gray-black webs of dust
that hang from a particular artificial plant—if it had been real, it would have died long ago—
perched next to the window at one end of the buffet. Once you see that, I defy you to not lose
your appetite.

So often, less is more. Tamale Kitchen stands in stark contrast to Mi Ranchito in almost
every way. The former lists about 20 main dishes and combination plates on its menu, in
comparison to well over 100 for Mi Ranchito. And although they lack the décor, size and full
cantina of Mi Ranchito, Tamale Kitchen—with no bar at all—is, hands-down, the better
restaurant. This one was also recommended to me by readers—a couple of displaced Texans
named Jim and Mary Ann who sung the praises of the tamales at Tamale Kitchen, and
justifiably so.

In a space that was formerly a Wally’s Donuts, Tamale Kitchen still looks like a doughnut
shop but with a few sombreros and Mexican blankets hung here and there. It’s owned by a
couple of New Mexican sisters, Dixie Trujillo and Marcella Lomheim, who do everything at
Tamale Kitchen, from waiting tables to making tamales from scratch. It takes strong-willed
women to compete in the Mexican restaurant universe here in Utah. Dixie reminds me a lot of
my mom, a strong-willed woman who ran her own businesses, competed in rodeos and loved
Mexican food. She, however, couldn’t cook it. Dixie and Marcella can.

Maybe it’s Tamale Kitchen’s proximity next door to a needlepoint store and an honest-to-God
barber shop with an honest-to-God barber pole, but the restaurant attracts a lot of seniors.
On my first visit to Tamale Kitchen at lunchtime, a couple of old soldiers were sitting at the
counter sipping coffee and discussing the events of the day, enjoying the leisurely pace that
dominates the restaurant. On their way out, Dixie waved and gave a friendly shout, “Come
see us again!” It’s that kind of place.

This is why you go: Each week Dixie and Marcella make by hand anywhere from 50- to 80-
dozen fresh tamales. Beef, chicken and pork tamales are usually available with a choice of
red- or green-chile sauce. À la carte, they are a mere $1.30. The masa is exceptional: Not too
dry, nor too moist, with just the right thickness quotient. Each is a bit larger than a 50-ring
Belicoso-shaped Cuban cigar and each tastes like heaven. But then, so do the stuffed
sopaipillas, burritos, open-faced enchiladas and especially the carne adovada—thinly sliced
pork bathed in a fresh and zippy New Mexico-style red chile sauce. Bonus: Combination
plates, most of which run $5-$7, include not only rice and refried beans but also a hot,
steaming with honey.

My advice: Haul buns to Tamale Kitchen today. Don’t wait for tamale.
Holy Mole
(The Red Iguana)