Dwarfed by the Kingsbridge Armory, El Rancho Deli Grocery would be easy to skip over. The store is narrow like a railroad apartment, snug between a nail salon and coffee shop. Neon lights flicker "tacos, tortas, quesadillas, huaraches" in red and green.
A kitchen is buried deeper inside. It's a one-woman operation befitting the place: a few squeeze bottles and condiments trays, a fridge suited for a dorm room, and a slender flat top griddle. In stark contrast to the bodega's pre-packaged groceries, the cook makes her tortillas fresh for masa-based classics with a variety of fillings: chorizo for your huarache ($5.50), cecina (dried salted beef) for your torta ($6), and huitlacoche for your quesadilla ($6). The overstuffed deli sandwich is still alive in the Bronx—it's just gone south of the border.
Take a closer look for something more enticing: barbacoa, slow-cooked meat (often cow's head or goat) traditionally roasted over an open fire or in a pit covered with agave leaves. Though these days, most barbacoa is simply steamed.
The goat barbacoa is offered exclusively on weekends, usually between 9:30 and 2:00, though it does sometimes run out earlier. After one unsuccessful attempt, a second request was met with an apologetic denial. But soon, with an air of secrecy, an unmarked blue bag arrived on the counter—and out came the goat.
In taco form ($3.15), the barbacoa comes with a thin smear of salsa verde, onion, and a tuft of cilantro. The seriously tender meat is cooked with dried epazote leaves, some of which sneak between the tortillas. The meat lacks the tell-tale smokiness of pit roasting; El Rancho Deli isn't digging any barbecue pits in nearby Van Cortlandt Park. Much of the meat was too lean, lacking distinctive flavor. But not all bites are created equal. Goat fat is not usually my chew of my choice, but the fattier bits packed a much more pronounced, gamey flavor. If your Spanish is up to the task, ask the cook for the good stuff only.
El Rancho's best offering is available all week. I may have been drawn in by the barbocoa, but it was the huitlacoche quesadilla that won me over. Popularly known in the U.S. as corn smut, huatilacoche is a black fungus that infects corn stalks and balloons the kernels. The fungus is considered a nuisance in the U.S., but in Mexico it's a delicacy highly regarded in Mexico for its sweet, nutty flavor.
The smut is cooked on the griddle with diced white onion and fresh corn kernels. As the tortilla begins to bubble, strips of Oxacan string cheese are laid down on one side. The huatilacoche is tossed on top, followed by a layer of iceberg lettuce. Onion and cheese add crunch with a soft stretch. The fungus itself buzzes and pops in your mouth, with a soft and forgiving texture. This quesadilla could compete with any of the carts down on Roosevelt Avenue.
The rest of El Rancho's offerings are worthy in their own right. The huarache, canvassed by a pale bean sauce, is large enough for several meals. It's topped with lightly fried chorizo, crumbled cheese, a blanket of iceberg, and a trail of sour cream. Its greasier than the quesadilla, just right to purge a hangover, and makes an excellent case for the crunchy virtues of ice burg.
El Rancho won't be winning awards for its cooking, and there's better Mexican to be found in the Bronx. But if you're in their neck of the woods with a growling stomach, don't hesitate to walk in. Especially for the smut.
El Rancho Deli Grocery
19 East Kingsbridge Road, Bronx, NY 10468 (map)
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.