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Dining review: Rancho Alegre shines

by mb partlow mb.partlow@gazette.com • Updated: January 3, 2014 at 9:29 am

When the holiday maelstrom is over and I need a break from the cookies, the nog and ubiquitous candy cane-flavored everything, I know where you’ll find me.

Rancho Alegre is located at the south end of Nevada Avenue, and I’m kicking myself for the number of times I drove by without stopping. The food is very good, but the friendly and sincere service makes this place stand out. The waiter made us feel like he was happy to welcome us into his home. He walked that fine line between sincerity and obsequiousness with charm and alacrity.

From the outside, the restaurant looks like an old fast-food spot, a typical square. But the interior is warm and welcoming, with terra cotta colored walls and white arches. The tables at the red booths have tile insets, and there’s a cozy cantina room with a bar. The decor has a hint of fiesta atmosphere without going over the line into corny.

The first item to arrive at the table was some snappy salsa with a basket of warm tortilla chips. This is a well-blended salsa, full of onions, cumin, chilies, crushed tomatoes and fresh cilantro. While extremely tasty, the heat level is on the mild side.

The menu has a lot of what you’d expect from a Mexican restaurant in Colorado Springs. Combination plates both large and small, burritos and enchilada, plus rellenos, tostadas and fajitas. While the typical items are mostly done very well, the menu does contain a few surprises.

For the main event, the Rancho Alegre burrito ($9.50) was a tasty belly filler. The hefty burrito is filled with rice, whole pinto beans and tender marinated chicken. The tortilla-wrapped package is then doused in a tangy, tomatillo-based green sauce whose acidity keeps the dish from being too rich.

The vegetarian fajitas ($13.95) show that someone pays attention to details. Instead of just a pile of sauteed onions and peppers with a few mushrooms thrown in, this was a delicious and interesting assortment. In addition to the aforementioned veggies, the sizzling platter had grilled carrots, potatoes and corn, all done to a turn and nothing overcooked. The second plate held beans, rice, tomato, lettuce and guacamole, plus a choice of corn or flour tortillas.

I was very excited to see carnitas de puerco ($13.95) on the menu, but these were not the carnitas of my dreams. Despite the menu description that they were marinated, the flavor was just bland. The meat was tender and had a decent roasted pork flavor, but there were none of the crispy, chewy outer bits I associate with the dish. It was as though the dish had been properly braised, but not seared off at the end.

On the other hand, the carne asada ($13.95) was bursting with flavor from the marinade, with notes of garlic, cumin and lime. The large, thin piece of skirt steak had been well marinated and quickly grilled so it retained a good beefy chew without becoming tough. My favorite touches were the two whole green onions on top of the steak that were tender and charred in spots from the grill.

All of these dishes came with the rice and beans you would expect. The refried beans have a good flavor, and the rice is fairly indistinguishable from the rice in any other Mexican restaurant in town. It serves the purpose of soaking up sauce, and is inoffensive. The pico de gallo is fresh and bright, with uniformly chopped onions and tomatoes livened with cilantro. The guacamole is nice and chunky, with crunchy bits of onion playing off the smooth avocado.

What surprised me at Rancho Alegre was the seafood. The seafood chimichanga ($10.95/lunch) is a golden, fried tortilla bursting with shrimp, tender scallops and real crab. (Not krab, which I have nothing against as long as it’s clearly labeled as such.) My only complaint was the topping of guacamole and sour cream would have been better underneath the chimichanga or on the side, because they stole some of the crunch from the shell.

But let me tell you about the dish that made me want to stand up and dance on the table. The camarones a la plancha ($13.95) were, simply, some of the freshest, sweetest shrimp I’ve had in years. The shrimp are shell-on, butterflied, marinated in a garlic sauce and grilled.

And in the middle of the platter is a pile of sauteed mushrooms that must have sold their soul to the devil, because how can a simple fried fungus taste so good? Rich, dark and meaty, I would happily eat a bowl of these by themselves, but only if I hadn’t already tasted the shrimp.

Restaurant character: Rancho Alegre is a gem hidden in plain sight, with very good food on most of the menu and some true standouts among the seafood dishes.

Read more at http://gazette.com/dining-review-rancho-alegre-shines/article/1511924#QvbCD8W5mAkyqGw2.99