Bite your tongue

From lengua to al pastor, neighborhood joint does tacos right

You won't find a neighborhood cantina with the sort of loyal patronage and longevity of Paco's in Winter Park, but Tacos El Rancho, as clean, bright and simply accoutered a taqueria as you'll find, has certainly laid a foundation for a healthy future (if not for its patrons, then certainly for itself). Locals in Conway seem to like their eatery's low-profile status ' I even ran into a couple of acquaintances at the counter, both of whom happened to live in the area, and listened to them reservedly extolling the virtues of the kitchen. After sampling the fare, it's easy to see why they'd want this little taqueria all to themselves.

Offering the established canon of Tex-Mex staples ' burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and specialty tacos ' the restaurant appears focused on doing those items right, even if some items, like lengua tacos ($2.25) may turn off diners. But tongue isn't as repulsive as it may sound. The buttery cubes of beef lick the palate softly, with onions, cilantro, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream layered atop two soft flour tortillas providing the textured tang. All soft tacos are doubled up in a similar fashion (you'll go solo with hard-shells); if you're on a tight budget, a couple of soft tacos and a drink will fill you up without emptying your wallet.

For six bits more, you can splurge on the fish tacos ($3). The nicely seasoned mahi fillets weren't fishy-smelling in the least ' always a determining factor in the quality of a good stuffed-to-the-gills fish taco. Aromatic tacos al pastor ($2.25) are done Mexico City'style, with the pork capturing its essence from a pineapple marinade. Those who like their ground beef minced fine will enjoy every bite of the tacos molida ($2.25). Tacos asada ($3) weren't as tender as the tongue, but
the steak packed plenty of flavor nonetheless.

Ground beef burritos ($5.50), crammed with rice and a choice of black, pinto or refried beans, offer a more substantial meal, but aren't as substantial as the bulbous gold chimichanga ($6.99). The deep-fried burrito, simultaneously crisp and soft, is an effort to finish in one seating, but the spicy chicken, splashed with a smooth green sauce and a snappy red, is only improved by an ample ladling of tangy queso on top. That cheesy sauce was a hit with all parties at the table ' the chimi may have been too much to finish, but that sauce was lapped clean. I've always thought of guacamole as being essential to enjoying a Tex-Mex meal, and the tub ($1.60) offered here does just that. Accompanying tortilla chips ($0.75) are properly warm and subtly oily.

They were out of tres leches cake, but milky horchata ($1.60), a rice-based beverage flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, simulates the cake's flavors, though it was a little too sweet. I enjoyed the sizable slab of flan ($2), redolent with the essence of vanilla.

The mood is pleasantly festive here, with a steady stream of patrons chatting away beneath sombreros dangling on terracotta-colored walls. Just beware of any prodding sticks on your way out ' you're likely to be mistaken for a stuffed piñata.


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