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Rancho Grande
***
Out of a possible five
$

Margarita, salsa make perfect start

I knew I was in for something special as soon as the frosty glass hit the table.

The bright yellow margarita was cloudy and looked like lemonade, which is not usually the case with the tequila-infused drinks at similar Mexican restaurants.

And when I took my first sip, I knew why.

Rancho Grande Mexican Restaurant in Leo Crossing makes its margaritas the right way. Fresh limes are squeezed, and their juice is blended with a number of “secret ingredients,” the bartender said, to make the house-made margarita mix. The result is the perfect blend of sour citrus with just a little sweetness, which is perfectly accented by the salt on the rim.

The only thing wrong with mine was that I ordered a regular one instead of one of the giant goblet-sized ones a couple of ladies at the table next to me were enjoying.

I did enjoy the atmosphere at this strip-mall restaurant. It feels clean and new but also had rustic touches beyond the wagon wheels flanking the entrance out front. The big throne-style chairs and matching tables were cool and somewhat familiar.

A glance at a large Mexican street scene painting on the wall explained the familiarity when I noticed “Hacienda El Patron” on it. The chairs and much of the furniture at Rancho Grande were once part of the now-defunct El Patron Mexican restaurant at Jefferson Pointe. There is no relation between the two establishments, I was told, but Rancho Grande did appear to be part of a group of restaurants as the business cards at the register listed three other Ranchos in Chesapeake, Va.

Aside from the margarita, the rest of what Rancho Grande had to offer was enjoyable but not eye-opening. Its dishes were on par with most reasonably priced Mexican restaurants with just a couple of high points.

The complimentary salsa and chips were better than average with the salsa being fresh and vibrant but not at all spicy. Rancho Grande also offered a sweet, white salad dressing-style dip during one of my visits.

The chile relleno in my lunch special No. 4, which also included a crispy beef-filled taco, beans and rice, was delicious with a bright green – i.e. fresh – poblano pepper packed with creamy white cheese and coated in a perfectly executed egg batter that clung nicely to the pepper.

The flautas looked as impressive as they tasted. Four corn tortillas were stuffed with chicken and beef (two of each) then fried until crisp and served with a fabulous guacamole salad, pico de gallo and sour cream. These flautas were bigger than most and the tortillas were like the fresh chips without a spot of grease and plenty of rich corn flavor. The guacamole was made with big slices of soft, ripe, hand-chopped avocado and was great when mixed with the spicy jalapenos and crunchy onions from the pico.

That same guacamole salad was a crucial additive to the parrillada, an impressive fajita-like combination of chicken breast, steak, pork and chorizo. This dish was easily big enough for two adults to share. The chicken breast was better than the rather poor cut of steak and slices of pork roast, but the well-done chorizo was not far behind. It had little blackened bits that added a little smokiness to my filled tortilla.

I was not given a choice and the dish came with mediocre, tepid flour tortillas. Upon asking, I received warm, soft corn tortillas, which really improved the dish, so I would ask for them right away.

The flour tortilla was fine when wrapped around my chicken chimichanga, which I was surprised was offered fried or soft. I thought a chimichanga had to be fried to be a chimichanga, otherwise it was just a burrito.

What made it a chimi, I guess, was the delicious cheese sauce that was poured over it. Fried or not, that cheese would make about anything taste good.

The service at Rancho Grande was a bit inconsistent. It seemed like there were a lot of people doing a lot of different things, but none of them doing it well. A server doubled as a host one time, and another time the hostess spent a lot of time clearing tables. I also found it odd that the bartender served my food when I was sitting on the side completely opposite of the bar.

All of my servers also disappeared for long periods of time.

But easily the biggest service mistake they made was not asking me whether I wanted another margarita.

Restaurant: Rancho Grande

Address: 10366 Leo Road

Phone: 471-7171

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Flautas ($7.99), parrillada ($14.99), lunch special No. 4 ($5.49), chimichanga ($5.89)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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