"In general, whatever they slather with their slightly tangy, bright-tasting verde sauce is good."
El Ranchito del Agave
476 9th Avenue (b/n 36th and 37th; map); 212-904-1198
Service: It's all you, buddy!
Must-Haves: Anything with verde sauce, pico de gallo, chicken mole
Cost: All-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $8, or $4 per pound of takeaway food
If buffets were animals, the Mexican buffet would be a narwhal. Sightings are rare, or more like never, but sound pretty awesome in theory. We were hipped to a new one (barely a month old) El Ranchito del Agave on 9th Avenue, by an email from a reader named Scott. Only a ten-minute walk from SE HQ, we were so game. Bottomless trays of refried beans and cheese enchiladas? Oh, boy.
Joined by fellow California transplant Carey (and a couple of bean-appreciating East Coasters), let's just say this wasn't our first fiesta. But definitely our first all-you-can-eat fiesta. The front room, what used to be Trio French Bakery, is still filled with glass cases, except they're now stocked with Mexican baked goods (which sadly always end up tasting like unsweetened sandpaper). The buffet is hiding in the back. Over on the right, an illuminated steam table sits in a room big enough to comfortably outfit a wedding reception or bar mitzvah with a decent-sized guest list.
The buffet's offerings rotate daily but after two visits, we noticed multiple repeats: pork in adobo sauce, both red and green enchiladas, chicken mole poblano, plus two kinds of rice (the traditional orange-ish one and white) and two kinds of beans (black and refried). All-you-can-eat Mexican is tough. Those tortillas and rice scoops add up, so getting $8-worth is definitely doable, but you start to slow down around plate two.
The chicken mole wasn't heavy in the way sauces containing chocolate can be. It packed a good punch of cinnamon and earthy flavors and bathed big hunks of chicken.
Of the two Christmas-colored variations of enchilada, go with the green. In general, whatever they slather with their slightly tangy, bright-tasting verde sauce is good. The green enchilada is filled with chicken shreds whereas the red one rolls up congealed cheese. Bleugh.
Pico de gallo trays! Even if they weren't the best tomatoes, and the tomato season is a bust this year, the light red hunks weren't mealy (a plus) and a very attentive buffet overseer refilled fresh batches often (plus squared).
Here is one of our plate masterpieces. Notice the lime green lake up front? That's the "guacamole." Technically it's just an "avocado sauce." Stocking the buffet with the real lumpy good stuff probably wouldn't fit the whole profit margin plan. Especially since some of us might get our $8-worth on guacamole alone. In fact, an order of guacamole and chips off the regular menu is $8.
What About $4 of Take-Out Will Buy You
The carnivore option: Pork adobo, chicken in verde sauce, and the necessary beans and rice nook.
The vegetarian option: A rainbow (er, not the shiniest prettiest one) of beans and rice.
There's no specific dish you should really trek here for. The meats probably haven't been stewing all night and the pork pozole is a huge let-down, but there are worse things than carte blanche access to Mexican food. If you're in the 9th Avenue and 36th Street area and want to be borderline painfully full, go for it. Two Californian girls left pretty happy.
El Ranchito del Agave doesn't have a liquor license yet but once they do, would like to spice up dinner service with mariachis and margaritas.
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