Except for a small but adorable bird-and-pine-cone decoration, the walls at El Rancho Mexican Grill are barren.

All the charm of the new Park Street restaurant comes from owner Jose Torres, who makes it clear he really wants you to enjoy your food. And he won’t let you leave without a punch card.

El Rancho is set up like a mini Chipotle and hopefully it will appeal to Madisonians of local mind, who would rather support Torres than a multinational conglomerate.

Parking isn’t super convenient, but on two recent visits I parked on Erin Street by West Shore Drive, and it was a quick walk past Dunkin’ Donuts.

The menu is simple: burritos, tacos, tortas, quesadillas and nachos with a choice of carne asada, chorizo, carnitas, shredded beef, ground beef and chicken.

There is only one cheese, shredded mozzarella, and fillings like rice, beans, pico de gallo, tomatoes, cilantro, fajita vegetables, jalapenos, onions, lettuce, red and green salsa and sour cream.

A basic guacamole is available for 50 cents extra. It’s $1.50 for a side order. The guac had a hint of onion and a bit of cilantro, but mainly lets fresh avocados speak for themselves.

For me, guacamole is a given to add to a burrito or a torta, along with cilantro and the fajita vegetables — grilled peppers and onions that were on the crisp side of al dente.

The success of your meal depends on the ingredients you combine, and the base meats I’ve tried, particularly the carne asada and chicken, have been high quality. A companion pulled one gristly, fatty piece of steak from his burrito ($6.95), but it was the exception, not the rule.

Tacos ($6.95 for three) come with flour tortillas or double corn ones. My carnitas taco featured tender, well-seasoned pulled pork. I had a bite of my 10-year-old daughter’s ground beef taco and that meat was well seasoned, too.

The taste of the meat, combined with her chosen ingredients: lettuce, cheese and sour cream, pleased her to no end.

“This place has to stay open,” she said as she bit into a taco I brought home, the oil from the meat leaking out into the Styrofoam box. “I like them more and more every bite I take. I want to eat these forever.”

Meanwhile, I was happy with my chicken torta, its sturdy bun holding up to an onslaught of extras.

The employee working the assembly line seemed surprised I didn’t want rice or either black or pinto beans on my sandwich. Apparently most people do. My torta ($7.50) was great without rice and beans, but I’d possibly include those ingredients in the future to bulk it up.

Everything comes à la carte, so if you want rice and beans they come in separate containers on the side for $2.50, said the restaurant’s general manager, Lupe Diaz.

The one underwhelming meal I ordered was the combo basket ($6.95) with one taco, a quesadilla and nachos. We’ve already established that the tacos are fantastic; it’s the other elements that were disappointing.

The quesadilla was one only a young child could love and something we call a “cheese tortilla” at home. It was simply a regular flour tortilla folded in half and grilled with a small amount of cheese inside.

The homemade tortilla chips were thick and sturdy with some liquid white cheddar cheese sauce poured over them.

A companion praised his steak burrito, saying it was larger than those at Panchero’s, Qdoba or local favorite Taqueria Guadalajara down the street. “I don’t think it’s just because I’m hungry, but this is amazing,” he said. “It may be the best burrito I’ve had in town.”

There’s a reason the food is so good at El Rancho and that’s because Torres has spent 27 years in the restaurant business, including 16 at TGI Fridays.

The small space was the Vietnamese restaurant I’m Here for about 20 years, and for much of that time the Park Street location was used only to prepare food for I’m Here’s food cart.

Madison Street Vending coordinator Warren Hansen said he’s not sure what happened to the I’m Here cart later called Thai’s Cuisine.

What we can be sure of is that El Rancho, which opened July 18, is a good use of the tiny space. Taco Bell may be gone, but legitimate Mexican food can be found up and down Park Street.

El Rancho’s is now the fastest and the cheapest. And I’m well on my way to earning a punch card burrito.


Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.