Not-So-Starving Artists: Katie Boyts and Chris Attenborough visit Mi Ranchito in Hollins Market
I want to live in Frida Kahlo’s house. La Casa Azul. The Blue House. Situated in Coyoacan, right outside of Mexico City, La Casa Azul is a shrine to color. It is a maze of boldly-painted vivid rooms and studios, blues and greens, dotted with self portraits of Frida and photos of Diego Rivera. In the center is a courtyard filled with greenery, bright light and a giant fountain. You can almost smell the mole and mezcal that would have surely been part of a past backdrop. I traveled there last year and have been fantasizing about it ever since.
So when I stepped into Mi Ranchito last week, a bright green restaurant across from Hollins Market in southwest Baltimore, nestled between City of Gods and a boarded up building, I was ecstatic. You see, I think Mi Ranchito has a Frida fetish. Stepping into the restaurant you can perhaps pretend for a couple of brief hours that you’re there – in Coyoacan, in Casa Azul, right outside Mexico City, just hanging out with Diego Rivera. (Maybe the Diego thing is a stretch but you get my point.) Its interior is as boldly colorful as her blue house. The Maryland walls pay homage to the painter at every turn – big greens, bigger reds and exposed brick. Orange and red patterned tables. And Frida everywhere, watching you indulge in the menu. Then a random yet brilliant stencil of “Tequila”, accented with a sombrero beside the bar.
Chris and I went on a Sunday and were greeted by a friendly man and the smell of floor cleaner. Evidence of a good Saturday night, I presume. After marveling at the interior’s palette, we sat down to the welcoming free chips and salsa and immediately ordered chile con queso, a side dish made of melted cheese and chile (in case you’ve been living under a dairy-free rock for the last 20 years).
Honestly, the queso was a nice version of carnival queso – you know, the kind of cheese that gets slathered on Tostitos at ball games and elementary school events, then generously topped with pickled jalapenos. This is not inherently a bad thing. I actually really adore carnival queso, in the right context, but Mi Ranchito on a sunny Sunday afternoon is not one of them. The chips were sadly stale on this occasion. I have, however, gone back since and had fresh crisp warm chips that I devoured. So maybe the Saturday night really was that good… I mean who hasn’t had a long night of tequila-drinking and the next morning thought any chips were amazing, or at the very least tolerable? The salsa was Tex-Mex style: refreshing and cold and garlicky.
It quickly became clear that this place would be a perfect hangover spot. The service was friendly – that nurturing but not pushy kind you need when your head’s about to split open. The light was lovely at the front of the restaurant but if you need a cozy, dark corner to curl up in, they’ve got that too. Also the coke, that one you crave after a night of karaoke and Budweiser, is cold, served with ice and hits the spot.
I ordered the Mi Ranchito tacos because it seems like a wise choice to eat the dish the restaurant has named after itself. They’re clearly proud of it; I should clearly eat it. The Mi Ranchito tacos are perhaps the biggest nod to Tex-Mex here: well-seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, and cheese; one on the crunchy corn tortilla, one on the soft flour. With a proper side of rice and beans. Tex-Mex tacos are really all about contrast – a crunchy shell, melt-in-your-mouth meat. Or a warm soft tortilla next to the crisp cold lettuce and bright tomatoes.
A delicious, well-contrasted ground beef taco launches me back to my high school days in Texas. I have many a fond memory of drive-thru taco spots in my maroon Honda – Taco Cabana, Taco Bueno, Del Taco, even Jack-in-the-Box on a few desperate occasions. And Mi Ranchito tacos were most certainly a jaunt down teenage taco memory lane. All the fillings sat comfortably on their end of the spectrum. Crispy and soft. Warm and cold. Creamy and spicy. They reminded me of home. Not the home of teenage angsty emotional eating. The home of comfortable/familiar – all cumin and chile and lime.
The side of refried beans were good, but not amazing. If you think that it’s a ridiculous expectation that beans should be amazing, think again. And then think lard. I always lament the absence of lard in refried beans. The best beans I’ve ever eaten had little pools of hot fat surrounding them and I miss those pools every time I eat beans. This occasion was no exception.
Chris had the pastor tacos, authentic Mexican versions made with soft corn tortillas, grilled meat, diced raw onion and fresh cilantro. Sweetened from the pineapple, but not cloying, they were great. The second time I went back I got a chicken tostada (delicious) and side of guacamole (super fresh, laced with garlic, perfect texture), and the free chips and salsa for a measly $4.91.
I don’t know how many Tex-Mex ground beef tacos Frida ate. Probably not that many if we’re being honest. But if she had, I think she would have loved eating them here. And not just because of the colors or the volume of self portraits or the deliciousness of the tacos.
In some ways, these few blocks around Hollins Market are not so different from the streets of Frida’s Coyoacan. The rush of downtown seems miles away and there is a refreshing quietness. Not desolate or indifferent, just relaxed. Pedestrians are in no rush, punctuated with a stroller and a snowball. You can slow down for a bit at Mi Ranchito, revel in the colors and Frida, nurse a hangover, remember the better parts of high school, and deal with that Sunday Mexican food craving. I’ll see you there.
Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings.
All photos by Chris Attenborough.