Similar to Mexican food in its use of tortillas and corn, El Salvadoran cuisine is, in a word, mellower -- virtually no chilies, but a heavy emphasis on herbs, smoky annatto seeds and crema, lots and lots of crema. The resulting recipes emphasize taste rather than heat; they're perhaps not as complex as Mexican food but, on their own terms, deeply satisfying.
Los Ranchitos is a comfortable place to dine, its mellow atmosphere reflecting its cuisine: The jukebox plays at acceptable levels, the TV is turned just loud enough to project the occasional shout of "goooooal" during soccer games, and whole families quietly dine on enormous platters of food. (And consider this: The menu declares a three-beer limit per person! That's a restaurant with either good values, a good lawyer or both.) One oddity, though -- there is a map of El Salvador on two different walls, which in and of itself is not particularly weird (although you'd think one map would be enough), but above each of the maps is a stuffed and mounted deer's head. I haven't a clue as to what this means.
The centerpiece of the Salvadoran table is the pupusa: Extra-heavy-duty corn tortillas are split, filled with various goodies (pork, cheese, herbs and combinations thereof) and grilled, resulting in one of the world's tastiest grilled cheese sandwiches ($1.15 to $1.50 each). Pupusa is one of the rare examples in which more is more: The cheese alone, after all, is good, and the cheese with loroco (a native herb) is even better; but the minced fried pork is terrific, and the best is the pork and cheese combo. Whichever you order, make sure to cut it in half and garnish each with curtido, a pickled cabbage mixture found in a giant plastic jug on every table. Its sprightly tartness is an integral counterpoint to the pupusa's rich fillings.
Along the same lines, I enjoyed the pastelitos salvadoreños ($1.25 each), tiny two-bite fried pastries filled with a savory ground pork and rice mixture (use some curtido with these as well). A heartier choice would be the tamale (chicken or pork, $1.70). Wrapped in a banana leaf, it's larger than the usual Mexican tamale but lighter, fluffier and more flavorful. It benefits from a slight drizzle of the mildly spicy salsa found on each table. (The salsa is meant for the complimentary basket of crisp fried green plantains served at the beginning of the meal, a nice change from the usual tortilla chips).
All of the above items are listed on the menu as Lo Mas Tipico de la Comida Salvadoreña (rough translation: typical Salvadoran foods), and all of them are delicious variations on dishes familiar to most Houstonians. One perhaps not as familiar is plátanos fritos, pidalos asi con crema y frijoles. What you get is a serving of crema, a pile of fried sweet plantains and (gasp!) a mound of coarsely mashed refried beans. Take a chunk of plantain, smear it with beans and dip it into the sour cream. I know, I know, the combination sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does. The earthiness of the beans plays off the sweetness of the plantains, both tied together by the rich cream. Fabulous.
The consome de apretadore (Salvadoran seafood soup, $6.95) makes for some equally strange but fabulous bedfellows: The gently spiced, richly flavored seafood broth is tinted yellow with annatto seeds and enriched with cream; it boasts a generous bounty of crab, shrimp and eggs poached directly in the soup. Add a squeeze of lime and enjoy.
Like many Mexican restaurants, Los Ranchitos offers menudo. Now I know the mere mention of menudo sends some people scurrying for the safety of an enchilada plate, but if you've ever considered trying the maligned tripe-based soup, you should sample Los Ranchitos' deeply flavorful sopa de mondongo ($2.95 small, $4.50 large). Unlike traditional menudo, this sopa features no hominy but boasts enough vegetables (corn, cabbage, potatoes, yucca) to cut the basic tripe-ness of the rich broth. Not that it needs it: This is breathtakingly tender tripe.
If you still harbor tripe issues, the camarones a la crema ($5.95) is happiness in a bowl. A generous serving of shrimp and crunchy vegetables is simmered in a "Salvadoran sauce" made from tomatoes, pepper, cumin, bay leaves, annatto and God knows what else, the whole enriched with crema. When the waitress placed the bowl in front of me, I picked up a spoon and didn't put it back down again until every single bit was gone.
The adventure-challenged diner, too, can find something to eat here: There are fajitas, charbroiled chicken and some really good tacos al carbon ($4.50). But if you're not adventurous, just what the heck would you be doing in a Salvadoran restaurant in the first place?
There are a couple of nice ways to end your meal. The tamale de elote ($1.50) is a sweet corn tamale served with crema. Nice. Even better are the empanadas de plátano ($1): Mashed ripe plantains are rolled in a sweet rice paste, dusted with cinnamon and sugar and fried. (I kept thinking how perfect they'd be with vanilla ice cream.) They're a sweet ending to a wonderful meal from a country that deserves a few sweet endings of its own.
Los Ranchitos, 7687 Clarewood, (713)777-5703.