The Hawk Is Howling

by This Land

Eighty-one-year-old Chris Rhodes has been eating the same thing in the same restaurant for 71 percent of his eating life, give or take a mouthful. Seldom does a restaurant get old enough to even claim such a customer. Rhodes has been eating at El Rancho Grande since his father, also Chris Rhodes, and Ed Hieronymus, his law partner, were kicking courtroom-ass and taking names.

“For a long time, it was Rhodes, Crowe, Hieronymus, Holloway & Wilson,” said Rhodes. “Then it became Rhodes, Hieronymus, Jones, Tucker & Gable.”

To reiterate, Chris Rhodes the Younger, older than Elvis would have been had he eaten fewer fried banana sandwiches, has been eating cheese enchiladas since Rosa Parks’ arrest, since the first chill of the Cold War, since the first transistor radios, since the first screening of Oklahoma! Exclamation point.

Rhodes will occasionally venture onto other Mexican food turf. But, he said, “We don’t really stray that far. We’ll go to Cancun occasionally. I’ve eaten at the upscale one on 15th.”

He strays even less at El Rancho Grande, where, like any good regular, he has a usual. He orders it like this: “I’d like my usual—the No. 4.” The No. 4 is the Vera Cruz, named presumably for the Mexican coastal city of Veracruz, which was compounded into one word but remains, in spirit, La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, “The Rich Village of the True Cross.” Even though the current menu doesn’t include numbers, it’ll always be the No. 4 to people like Rhodes. And a No. 4, or a Vera Cruz, or whatever else it ends up being called, will always be two cheese enchiladas with rice and beans.

“I don’t want to mess with those,” said John Walden, half-owner, with brother Jeff, of El Rancho Grande. “We put new food out, like these guys in these other places do, just to stay up with it. But we’ll always sell more cheese enchiladas than anything.”

“That particular dish is what has kept me coming,” said Rhodes.

Like any restaurant going on 60, El Rancho Grande has its regulars, folks who come in and order the same dish, or close to it, every time they come, which is regularly if not often. My parents are semi-regulars, though I am reluctant to qualify the term, a “regular” being a diner who walks through the door often enough, and probably in some kind of pattern, to warrant the status. Meaning, you might have weekly regulars and monthly regulars, or even yearly regulars. Then you have Bruce Devault.

Devault sells food and drink for a living. You’d think that would drive you away from restaurants. But Devault eats lunch or dinner at El Rancho Grande several times a week. Sometimes lunch and dinner.

“Sometimes twice a day, yes. My wife says I’m a frequent flyer.”

Unlike Rhodes, he roams all over the menu. “They have an infinite variety of good food. Sometimes I eat the fajitas, which are unusual in that they use pineapple chunks. They marinate their chicken overnight. That formula makes their enchiladas better than any other.

“I eat the buffet some. The camarones al mojo de ajo, which means shrimp in garlic butter. I’m not into fish tacos.”

I am not a regular at El Rancho Grande. I ate lunch there twice—once in the late ’80s, again two years ago—until a month ago. Lately, I have eaten there almost weekly, which is, for me, highly irregular. I’m certainly no Devault. I’m not even Cheena Pazzo. Pazzo is in community relations and into fitness, by the looks of things. She wouldn’t be my idea of an El Rancho regular, but I had no idea.

“There was a time during my pregnancies when I dined there two to three times a week,” she emailed me back. “I’ve since learned moderation, and I try to practice portion control. John probably wouldn’t love that I’m advocating this, but I usually share a meal with my daughter.”

Two years ago, I was greeted at the door of El Rancho Grande by a middle-aged man with glasses and neatly combed hair who called me by my first name. It was John Walden, whom I hadn’t seen since 1973 or ’74. We were classmates at Waite Phillips Elementary School, which is now Zarrow International School. There’s still the roundabout on Hudson at 36th that you must navigate to get to the school, unless you approach from the south. Ten years after we graduated from elementary school, John was running El Rancho Grande.

“Hey, Mark,” John said two years ago. I scanned his face in search of a name. “It’s John,” he said. “John Walden.”

Out of the fog that 40 years makes came the face of a 10-year-old, hair combed and collar buttoned. “Dude … How’d you recognize me?”

He said, “You look the same.”

* * *

With a booming economy to promote—and a new federal highway system to justify—President Eisenhower created the United States Information Service, a propaganda arm of the CIA designed to keep American hearts pumping warm blood through the Cold War era. A 15-minute film put out by USIS (credited to a Knickerbocker Productions and narrated by Bucky Kozlow) depicts a 1950s Tulsa that is both charmingly simple and alarmingly spot-on. If it might be hard to imagine elementary schoolers reliving Tulsa’s past by taking in 25-cent Westerns at the Delman Theatre (now a Walgreens), reliving the city’s conversion “from hitching posts to parking meters,” it’s not hard at all to watch a typical Tulsa family eat dinner, where “not only wholesome food but warm and animated talk flows freely across the dinner table.” However wholesome the food, everybody looks bone-achingly thin. And however animated the conversation, it seems incapable of flowing more freely than the crude of prior decades.

In spite of Ike, 60 years ago in Tulsa, 11th Street was automobile alley and a significant strip along Route 66, if not enough to merit inclusion in Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” which jumps from Joplin to Oklahoma City, bypassing T-Town. The “spacious suburbs” the documentary mentions were amid the sticks, and the lots of south Memorial Drive known for corn, not cars.

On an 11th Street that’s nearly lost its way, El Rancho Grande stands apart, literally. Surrounded by parking lots, its two stories look a lot taller, it’s neon a lot brighter. If not for the shadow of Hillcrest, it might loom even larger. Route 66 travelers will pull over just to photograph the roping caballero whose lasso forms the “El,” then drive on without eating.

Hanging in one of El Rancho’s dining rooms is a photomontage of Tulsa landmarks, neon, Deco, and other. Two inches wide and tucked in the middle, the El Rancho roper fights a losing battle for dominion with other icons. The Blue Whale is there, but so is Dong’s, the guns and ammo superstore. The tower of Bruce Goff’s Boston Avenue Methodist rises in contrast to that of the Fairgrounds Pavilion. Most of the old 11th Street motels are represented, as is Day & Nite Cleaners. There’s the Meadow Gold sign, one for Moody’s, and John’s old employer, the Metro Diner. It’s the graphic equivalent of a heavy-handed Tex-Mex combo plate.

El Rancho Grande opened for business at 621 S. Boulder Ave. in 1951, across from Holy Family Cathedral under the ownership of Mrs. Ruby A. Rodriquez and Mrs. Cecelia Neito. “Fine Mexican Foods in a Mexican Atmosphere,” reads the entry in the city directory of that year. Two years later, in a move that proved prescient, whether calculated or not, she moved the restaurant to its current address of 1629 E. 11th St., in the space formerly occupied by a restaurant called House a Plenty.

An Oklahoma Historical Society synopsis concludes that, by 1940, the Great Depression had driven Oklahoma’s Mexican population to around 1,500. It had been documented as high as 7,500 a decade earlier. Many immigrants came to work in Tulsa’s coal pits. [1] Rodriquez, a native of Hermosillo, in Sonora, found her way through Mexican food.

Jeff Walden Sr., John’s dad, bought the 1920s-era Leyh Building in the early ’70s. By then, Ruby’s daughters, Martha and Judy, were running the restaurant. One of young John’s first jobs was collecting their $700 rent check. In 1984, the checks quit coming. El Rancho went up for auction and Walden Sr. bought as much equipment as he could get his hands on. “There was no payment for the business. They didn’t even trademark this,” John said, pointing to the logo on his golf shirt.

The El Rancho of today is a tidy work no longer in progress. There’s lots of artfully exposed original brick and plenty of Mexican kitsch. The stucco is painted a chile colorado red, the bathrooms a Velveeta yellow-orange. Behind the cash register hangs a collection of folk art crosses. “Since 1953,” the menu reads, meaning in this spot.

“We never went there to eat, growing up,” John said. “We ate a lot of Mexican food, though, always a lot of tacos. We pan-fried the corn shells. My brother and sister had braces. We made ’em once a week when I was young.”

He recalled trips to Monterey House, which got me started. Monterey House was my family’s go-to restaurant in the salad days. We’d begin with a plate of nachos—tortilla shells (not chips) sprinkled with shredded iceberg lettuce and covered in melted Velveeta, with just enough pickled jalapeños to lend interest but not discomfort. I would peel up the peppers just to see the watery white ring they left in the yellowy melt. I nearly always followed the nachos with two cheese enchiladas smothered in chili con carne. For dessert, they’d bring little wax packages of those brown-sugar treats. We’d save them for the parking lot, where we’d suck on them until a good syrupy spit formed. Then we’d spit the caramelized saliva slowly to the asphalt.

Then I noted how that Monterey House was just a few blocks from the other Tex-Mex landmark on Sheridan Road, Casa Bonita.

“No, no,” John said, “the one on 53rd and Harvard that’s now a Chimi’s.” I’ve eaten at that Chimi’s once, but I never knew it was a Monterey House.

Chimi’s, in the days of Nancy Gomez, made a sales point of the Sonoran style. The state of Sonora, like most of those in Mexico, enjoys the luxury of coastline. Sonorans fish the Sea of Cortez and graze beef on the northern plains. It’s also far enough north—Sonora borders all of Arizona—for wheat to take over for corn in the tortillas. In Tucson, an 18-inch flour tortilla is the daily bread. The lines of culinary heritage between Arizona and Sonora blur like heat waves off a desert floor. As with any border skirmish, those lines keep shifting. “While it is sometimes said that Tucson’s culinary ways reflect the traditions of the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico,” write Jane and Michael Stern [2], “many of the town’s food-savvy citizens see it the other way around.”

Sonora, while still inspiring the food, is largely gone from the marketing. In “Brandon’s Blog,” new (since 2007) Chimi’s owner Brandon Fischer writes about the tastes of his travels, from Orange County sushi to Argentine sweetbreads. Both Chimi’s and El Rancho Grande name their combination plates after Mexican destinations—the Cancun Platter (shrimp, scallop, and fish tacos), Guadalajara Platter (taco, beef enchilada, and chicken tamale), and Veracruz platter (tilapia filet and shrimp enchilada); the Tampico (chili relleno and chicken enchilada), Acapulco (“toasted” beef taco, cheese and onion enchilada), and Jalisco (two tacos and guacamole salad).

Jalisco is the home state of Tequila, the mountain village now a global beverage.

* * *

Feeling I’d overlooked whatever made El Rancho so popular, I went over for lunch recently. I took a seat by the window and started mowing down tortilla chips.

Ceiling fans spun lazily overhead, and conjunto, the playful polka of Mexico, thumped from a speaker somewhere. My view of the four-story Hillcrest parking garage across 11th was occasionally broken by guys walking bicycles up the sidewalk, many of them in wool caps, one of them shirtless and lobster red in the February wind. The waiter came and I ordered the Night Hawk, because that’s what Gustavo Arellano ate.

Arellano is the author of the widely syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!” It was first published in 2004 by the OC [Orange County] Weekly as an experimental one-off. But, like a Mexican hot dog, it caught on.

Readers submit questions and Arellano—picture a Mexican Billy Crystal—provides entertaining and often educational responses to curios like, “When should you italicize Spanish words?”, “Do Mexicans cause the closures of hospitals?”, and “What ever happened to Jonny Chingas?”

Arellano is also the author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which includes a chapter titled “What Are the Five Greatest Mexican Meals in the United States?” One-fifth of that answer is El Rancho Grande’s Night Hawk. [3]

After proclaiming it “a feat of Tex-Mex majesty,” Arellano lays it on thick. “In its presentation, the Night Hawk looks like a Pac-Man in reverse. The bright yellow cheese taco side occupies a third of the plate, as if the chili con carne gobbles up that last sliver in a culinary bid for domination. That cheese fights back; as the plate settles, some of the molten dairy product spills over to the chili con carne side, creating a color scheme as warm as that of the Arizona State Sun Devils.”

The menu declares that it’s “two cheese and onion enchiladas covered with chili con carne and cheddar. One soft cheddar cheese taco topped with chili con queso,” but I had a hard time distinguishing most of that in my order. With the tines of my fork, I peeled back the thin skin on the queso and tried to see what Arellano saw. In an era of sculpted food, the Night Hawk spreads liquidly across the plate, settling well below the lip.

Scooping up leftover chili with my chips, I remembered that Nighthawks is a 1942 painting by American realist painter Edward Hopper—the famous one that depicts a diner named Phillies in the wee hours. Three people sit at the counter—two men in fedoras and a lady in red—waited on by a guy in white. The Art Institute of Chicago bought it for $3,000 not long after Hopper painted it, and there it hangs to this day.

Arellano channels this motif when he takes a guess at the origins of the name, “Probably a nod to the dish’s ideal audience, people looking for energy to confront the lonely night.” But John said it’s named for a different species of night owl.

“I said, ‘Salvador, why did you call this the Night Hawk?’ He said Mrs. Rodriques was from Sonora, Mexico, and the nighthawk was a bird that was very plentiful there. A brown-and-yellow bird. Brown and yellow … chili and cheese. I’m like, really? But that was Salvador’s story. It’s my story now.” Salvador Gomez, El Rancho Grande waiter of 36 years, has a lot of stories.

In ornithology, a nighthawk is of the family Caprimulgidae, the nightjars. Nightjars are sometimes called “goatsuckers,” from the belief that they nourish themselves on the teats of goats. A whip-poor-will is a nightjar. Nighthawks prey best just before dusk and dawn, and again in the dark of night. To feed, the common nighthawk darts erratically across the sky stabbing at insects. Mating begins with a lo-fi buzzing call. Males will fly high and go into a power dive. “Booming” is the sound his wings make when he pulls up to lock talons.

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a fighter jet formerly operated by the United States Air Force. A product of an engineering team called Skunk Works, it famously employed the new “stealth” technology. (The F-117A spread its wings in the Persian Gulf War.) The Air Force retired the Nighthawk in 2008 when it introduced the F-22 Raptor.

Nighthawk is also the name of a discontinued line of Honda motorcycles.

“In its presentation, the Night Hawk looks like a Pac-Man in reverse. The bright yellow cheese taco side occupies a third of the plate, as if the chili con carne gobbles up that last sliver in a culinary bid for domination.”

John Walden’s restaurant resume is about as long and winding as anybody else’s who occupies that line of work. When he was 14, he got a job washing dishes at The Rafters. “I got a motorcycle license and I was loose,” is how he remembers it.

When he turned 16, he got a car and a promotion—tracking down those rent checks for his dad. In 1988, he was among the managerial rotation at Metro Diner, putting in a lot of late nights. He left after three months.

“I figured out I didn’t want to do that. I have them now, but doing them for someone else they seem even longer.”

When John and Jeff arrived at El Rancho Grande in 1984, they inherited a Tex-Mex mess. After four frustrating years, they both left and took odd jobs, including a stint remodeling homes together. John came back in ’91, ran the place for almost two years, then left again. He remembers introducing breakfast in that incarnation. (He recently made breakfast tacos with KJRH’s Breanne Palmerini, where he wrapped a crunchy corn tortilla shell inside a flour tortilla stuffed with cheese, eggs, and chorizo.) He wasn’t finished. “We came back in ’98, and my wife and I ran it for another year and a half. Th en left again.” His wife now runs a Curves out in Broken Arrow. “Sales and membership,” John speaks of the business model, “just like anything else.”

When John and Jeff took over in earnest in 2005, they had to learn the restaurant biz from scratch. Everything John knows about cooking Mexican food a la Rancho Grande he learned from Larry Lara.

“If he [Larry] wasn’t there, we couldn’t cook the food. So my dad was like, ‘We gotta change that.’ He had no written recipes.”

As recipes go, the El Rancho regimen is fairly basic, if bulky. They cook 40 pounds of chili meat a day, and that much taco meat, with two huge vats of refried beans and “ranchera” rice going on separate burners. Crushed tomato is what gives Spanish rice that orange tint. Chile, cumin, and garlic are what flavor it.

“Tex-Mex is, to me, what I know about it, is chili powder, cumin, garlic,” John said, punctuating the trinity with his fingers. “It’s not New Mexican red chile, green chile. It’s chili powder, cumin, and garlic. And cheese sauce. For our chili con queso, we use Velveeta.”

It was likely the San Antonio-born Lara who put the Tex in El Rancho’s Tex-Mex. A lot of elbow grease and stew beef and cheese sauce. Inez C. “Larry” Lara, who put five decades into the place before retiring and dying in San Antone.

“He was short, stocky, and his hands were like baseball gloves,” John said. “Just … powerful. He’s moving around 50 pounds of meat at a time. Thirty pounds of rice and beans at a time. He didn’t use spoons—he used big stainless-steel paddles, like an oar. He got to where his shoulder bothered him. He had all these weird movements when he was up there stirring his meat.”

“He was very secretive,” said El Rancho regular Bruce Devault. “He always did the shredded chicken late in the evening, when people weren’t watching. It’s job security for him. He certainly wasn’t going to tell me anything.”

It was from Lara that John got a taste of the real restaurant biz, in all its back-of-house bull.

“I remember seeing mean-looking Mexicans in the back when I was a skinny 16-year-old kid coming over there to collect the rent. Way back then, they smoked in the kitchen. I was always on his ass to quit smoking in the kitchen.”

Lara was a man of appetites in a less guilty, if more corrosive, era of indulgence.

“They drank like fish,” John said. “He went into Hillcrest for treatment in the late 1970s, early ’80s. He was close to 60. He met the quietest, smallest, whitest, most petit lady there and they ended up getting married. And here was Larry, just this meaty hands, dark skin, dark hair, dark moustache … a ladies man.

“Her name was Sylvia. They had a house in White City.”

They cook 40 pounds of chili meat a day, and that much taco meat, with two huge vats of refried beans and “ranchera” rice going on separate burners. Crushed tomato is what gives Spanish rice that orange tint. Chile, cumin, and garlic are what flavor it.

When Salvador Gomez began waiting tables at El Rancho Grande in 1977, jalapeños were scarce, tomatillos scarcer, and tortillas made by one guy—Bruno’s Corn Tortillas, at Denver and Latimer, in the Cruzan Building.

El Rancho builds its menu around beef and cheese. Gomez is from Zacatecas, where pork is king, ruling such dishes as chile verde. The green in chile verde comes a little from the chiles but a lot from the tomatillos, the dish’s signature ingredient.

“Do you know why El Rancho Grande’s signature chile verde is red instead of the traditional green? We do.” That’s from the El Rancho website. At the bottom of the page is an invitation to come by for lunch and find out the answer to the mystery.

“We used to call our pork dish ‘chili verde,’ ” John told me, “but it’s reddish brown. Th e busier we got the more confusion we had to deal with. We now call the same dish ‘chili colorado.’ It was a neat story until we had several complaints that this is not chili verde, I caved and changed the name.

“We need to update the website.”

Added Gomez, “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t see any verde. Where’s the verde?’ ”

It was a tradition started in the days of few tomatillos—when tomatoes made do—and it just stuck. Colorado refers not to the state, but the Spanish for “colored,” as in reddish. Chili colorado, aka chile con carne, is the lifeblood of El Rancho Grande. Gustavo Arellano writes of “America’s original Mexican food combo plate”—enchilada, tamale, refried beans, rice, and chili con carne— crediting Casa Rio of San Antonio, which called its dish “The Regular.”

“From a personal standpoint, which dates back to the ‘50s,” said Chris Rhodes, “what I call Tex-Mex—and this is legitimately a Tex-Mex restaurant—starts with a cheese enchilada. It’s hard for me to tell if it isn’t exactly as it was all those years ago.”

Rhodes calls a good chili-soaked cheese enchilada the “anchor” of any Tex-Mex joint worth the name. He eats it like it’s going out of style, even if it hasn’t and never will. I ate cheese enchiladas with Rhodes and they tasted to me not only like the same cheese enchiladas El Rancho Grande has always served, but nearly the same that every Tex-Mex joint in my recollection ever served. I eat cheese enchiladas and the ghosts of untold enchiladas past come back to haunt.

“Chili con carne would be, for me, the definer,” John said. “Ours always reminds me of Ron’s Hamburger’s chili, except Ron’s uses sausage and ground beef. And, you can’t say it … I was eating at the one on Harvard one day, watching Ron behind the counter, he was stirring up a pot of chili and I saw him flipping slices of American cheese in his pot of chili. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said once they get a pot of chili all set and ready, they added a dozen slices per pot, or whatever it was, of sliced American cheese. And you notice it, next time you look … Well I can, knowin’ it. It’s got a little lighter color. I can always tell it when I eat it.”

El Rancho honors a Customer of the Week by slapping his or her name on a blackboard and, if you beg, naming a dish after you. Cheena Pazzo has tried everything on the menu, but her all-time fave has to be The Cheena—a shredded beef enchilada with sour cream sauce and a cheese soft taco with rice and beans. Rhodes, in spite of his illustrious career, has never been Customer of the Week.

“I think they figure it would be denigrating,” he said, with a solid chuckle.

John Walden’s been to San Antonio all of once, when his wife took a business trip there. In five days, he ate Tex-Mex twice a day in any restaurant he stumbled upon.

“We didn’t have cell phones then, so we just found them. Big, old ones on the River Walk that had been there a long time, then one in a strip center that someone said something about. But only because I was askin’. It was all very similar to what we do—chili con carne and queso. Of course, that’s what I ordered.”

“Most of the people,” said Gomez, “they order about the same thing every time they come here.”

* * *

Mexican food, like French and Italian and Chinese food, is too broad a defi nition. It’s just impossible to capture an entire country’s food in one phrase, let alone one menu. Even when I was a youth in the ’70s chewing Monterey House cheese enchiladas and slamming Casa Bonita sopapillas and stuffing myself with Taco Bueno bean burritos, loncheras and rincons on both coasts were filling corn tortillas with spicy pork, crispy tripe, and marinated goat. It’s all Mexican, and then none of it is.

Walden’s thought about tapping into the Tulsa food truck craze. He gets around enough to know what’s likely to eat into his business. [4] “I have put a street taco on the menu—chopped steak, a little tortilla, cilantro, and onions. We do do those. And I watch a lot of Food Network.

“But I’m not a real food person. I learned to cook that food because I had to. I’m not a chef, I’m not creative, and I really don’t have those kinds of people. This is classic Tex-Mex, not authentic Mexican food. The guys who work for us are very authentic and they don’t cook anything like this. Larry was from San Antonio, not Mexico.”

There’s authenticity, and then there’s consistency. You hear this a lot about restaurants, that the food must be always the same lest the customer walk. I’ve often wondered how such consistency comes, given the constant overhauling of kitchen staff, the minimum-wage aspects, the fluctuations in food quality, the ever-increasing price of everything, save what customers are willing to pay. The Night Hawk is possibly a lesson in how to achieve—and more importantly maintain—consistency. It’s likely fairly predictable predicting the outcome of a plate of cheese, tortilla, and chili con carne. “We keep the recipes the same as 20 years ago,” said Salvador, and he should know.

“That’s one of my favorite things about that place,” said Pazzo. “Even though they introduce new menu items, the standards are consistently good. You can always count on it tasting the same.”

* * *

I work relatively close to El Rancho Grande and so one night in early spring mi familia met me there for dinner. The patient and professional Salvador waited our table, so we made our kids order in their best immersion-school Spanish. We start with two margaritas, two lemonades and a bowl of queso.

“White or yellow?” Salvador asked. White, we agreed, but it was still Velveeta yellow. My wife and I ordered Fire-Grilled Shrimp Tacos and the Chili Rellenos, agreeing to split them. I noted the “i” in chili: An “i” usually means the meat-and-powder dish, an “e” the dried fruit of the capsicum plant of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. But grammarians do not write menus.

“You want a sauce?” Salvador asked. My choices were ranchera salsa and queso.

“What do you recommend?” I asked.

“I would go with the cheese sauce.”

“But isn’t there cheese inside the poblano?”

He scrunched his nose and said, “Just a little.”

Our kids ate—and in soft voices sort of ordered—off the kids’ menu. “Mexico rice!” shouted my youngest, leaping from his seat. El Rancho’s mosaic-tile tables add to the atmosphere but proved wobbly to our pequeños, who twice spilled their lemonades.

“I’m thinking of trying that Rosetta Stone,” said John, who’d come by on his way out the door. “They say it works.” He’s trying to enroll his staff in English courses at TCC, but they want $900 per estudiante.

Before we could polish off a basket of chips, our food arrived. A dish of chiles rellenos is typically a mild green chili—a poblano or an Anaheim— blistered over a flame, skinned, and stuffed with cheese and/or meat, then egg-battered and pan-fried until golden. Atypically, stuffings include candied fruit and umpteen spices and sauces made of nuts. [5] Halfway into mine, I saw the stem poking out of the end of the poblano and angled for it, craving a toothy thing.

I watched Salvador work his tables, which he did with both hands tied behind his back. He’s almost stereotypically tall, dark, and handsome. His hair is black as crude and his mustache tightly trimmed. He has a slight round in his middle but, on the whole, is much fitter than the bulk of his customers. And, in spite of his limited English, he navigates his tables with mastery.

While busy, the restaurant wasn’t exactly buzzing. Not, John imagines, like it must have been in the old days.

“I think they did really well back then. I’m sure they made more money than we do. They just had so much more volume. There weren’t a lot of restaurants then. And there certainly weren’t a lot of Mexican restaurants.”

“There was, in that time, not much competition,” said Salvador. “By now”—about 6:30 p.m., on a Tuesday—“the whole place was full already. In that time, we really worked.”

And played.

“Martha and Judy were a draw,” said Rhodes of Ruby’s daughters. “Th ey both liked to live on the edge. You know how when you go in a place and it feels alive? Everybody was in there was with Martha, and Martha was with them, and it was alive. You could feel it when you walked in.”

Rhodes was around in the days before Mexican food and margaritas became bookends. Stuck in the purgatory of post-Prohibition and pre-liquor-by-the-drink, he improvised.

“We brought our lime juice and tequila and asked Martha if she’d make one for us, and that started something. See that closet over there?”

He pointed to a door behind a table that I would assume held mops or fresh laundry. “I don’t know what’s in there,” Rhodes said, “but in the ‘60s, Judy [this one Chris’ wife] and I discovered an easy-to-make margarita. After a year of bringing in our bottle, Martha said, ‘I’ll just put it in the closet.’ ”

Their margarita, Walden said, is the one he serves today, with a twist. “The secret is its simplicity,” is all he would say. Meaning the El Rancho Grande margarita still hasn’t come out of the closet.

* * *

Before dinner, John and I talked in his small, well-kempt office of olive-green walls and hardwood floors. His days in the kitchen long since done, he keeps books and speaks with reporters.

“I don’t cook much. I oversee.” He’s now overseeing a young Spanish-speaking kid with “several restaurants” on his resume. “I try to get him to just follow my recipes. His deal—he’s 24—he just gets tired and wants to get done quick. He’s more of a line cook. He’s from Juarez.”

Just north of El Rancho are two freshly paved asphalt parking lots where once was a pauper’s field of craters. It’s where overflow traffic used to park, taking its chances with the cauldron-like potholes. The lots are visible on a set of security monitors in the office.

“QuikTrip actually built that for us,” John said of the new lots. “When they did their deal, they came to us needing help to close 10th street. They said, ‘What’s it gonna take to make it happen?’ The credit union (John’s next-door neighbor) said, ‘Build us a parking lot.’ ”

QT says they paved the parking lots because it needed to be done.

We were in two cars, of course, the night my family met me for dinner. Paid up and full up, we said a group gracias to Salvador and made for the front door. We walked out onto the sidewalk and nearly onto Route 66. With no parking lot to gird you, the step can be a perilous one, however many margaritas.

I paused to breathe in the evening aroma of a new spring. Out west, a queso blanco sun was melting into a blue-corn tortilla sky. The white buds of the Bradford pears were in bloom along Troost, dropping their petals onto the parking lot, its slanted yellow lines holding a full house of customers. Around the corner, QuikTrip, home of the taquito, was knocking at the door.

And all across Sonora, the nighthawks were preying.


1. In the 1920s, according to the OHS, there were also Mexican coal miners working near what is now 15th Street and Sheridan Road. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was built in 1928 to support these workers. There was a lot of strip mining in the Dawson Road area north of Pine, but a few firms—Adamson, Hickory, Seneca Coal & Coke—dug mines along 21st Street between Harvard and Sheridan. Peter Adamson Coal & Mining Co. worked a mine whose eastern edge stopped within a few city blocks of where Casa Bonita laid its foundation.

2. That’s from the Sterns’ 2002 El Charro Café Cookbook. El Charro proves its Sonoran pedigree with its popular house dish, carne seca: strips of beef air-dried in the desert sun, marinated in lemon and garlic, and reconstituted in a blend of sweet onions, tomatoes, and chiles. Carne seca is the foundation of the traditional Latin American (and Mexican) dish picadillo, meaning “hash.”

3. Taco Acorazado, Alebrije’s Grill, Santa Ana, California—a corn tortilla “wide and thick as a pamphlet” stuffed with battered beef slices milanesa, fluffy rice, avocado slices, pickled carrots and queso cotija. Optional garnishes include cactus paddle and pickled onions. No. 2: Rolled Tacos, Chico’s Tacos, El Paso, Texas—thin ground beef taquitos stacked in watery tomato salsa and topped with processed American cheese. Served in a carton. No. 1: The Mexican Hamburger, The Original Chubby’s, Denver, Colorado—a bean-and-chicharrones (pork rinds) burrito stuffed with a hamburger patty and slathered in chili.

4. There is a taco truck that sets up shop in a hellhole of a parking lot near Whittier Square. “Pollo y Asadas al Carbon” is painted on the truck, “Estilo Monterrey,” in the style of Monterrey. Cokes and Jarritos chill in a big white Igloo set in front of the window. A hand-written sign reads, “We do not accept $100 bills anymore.”

5. Like the chiles rellenos of Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico—a recognized classic of the genre—which requires three dozen ingredients, eight pieces of cookware, runs four and half pages, and begins with the reprimand, “If you have eaten those sad, flabby little things that usually turn up in so-called Mexican restaurants in the United States as authentic chiles rellenos, you have a great surprise in store.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 12. June 15, 2013.