gourmet notebook

I was squinting across Ulitsa Prechistenka looking for No. 23 when the unmistakable chords of "La Bamba" wafted across the street, and I knew we had arrived.

El Rancho is a new Latin restaurant, but their musical repertoire is as old as the hills. "Do we really need to hear 'Guantanamera' again?" sighed one of my dining companions when the band struck up the ubiquitous tune halfway through the meal. Perhaps it doubles as a digestive aid.

On to the meal, which was on the whole a pleasant, albeit unremarkable, affair. We started with the avocado salad ($10), the mashed garlic soup ($6) and an order of "Macho Nachos" ($6). We had been hoping to try the spicy chicken wings ($7) but were thwarted by supply problems.

"We're making the sauce," the manager said. "But there aren't any wings." Legs, yes, but it just wouldn't be the same.

The avocado salad had its high points -- one of them being the large quantity and variety of lettuce, a given elsewhere in the world but a rarity in Moscow. The corn, however, looked and tasted canned. The garlic soup was more disappointing; one of my friends pointed out that she couldn't taste any garlic at all in the creamy chicken base.

The nachos were a simple plate of chips, very tasty salsa and one errant french fry. They were also an inspiration for me to make the following statement, one that I've been saving up for some time now. Attention all Latin/Mexican restaurants in Moscow: Chips and salsa should be free. Just like bread. Yes, it's a radical notion in the city where a glass of water can run you $5, but any restaurant that took this bold step would surely reap the reward of a devoted clientele and increased profits in the long run.

The main course that looked most appetizing on El Rancho's menu -- which is on the small side -- was the Chicken Fillet "Cartage–a," with mushrooms, tomato sauce, onions and garlic and served with saffron rice ($16). But supply problems intervened again -- we were told it wasn't available -- and we had to settle for second choices: entrecot grilled with sweet peppers ($21) and pork fillets with pineapple ($16).

Had we been more daring we might have gone for the traditional Colombian dish of pig legs "flourished with red beans" ($10), patriotically and humorously translated in the English menu as "Feeling Like in My Home-Land."

The highlight of my entrecot dish was definitely the grilled vegetables -- not only sweet peppers, but pieces of eggplant, delectably prepared and seasoned. I could have made a meal of that alone. The beef itself was admirably cooked to a rosy pink on the inside, but the meat itself was not at all tender. My friend, though not usually a pork eater, fared better with his choice. Sweet pineapple alongside the succulent pork is a commendable combination.

My other dining companion had gone the lighter route, ordering a chicken fillet sandwich ($7) with honey mustard, and was suitably impressed to see that not only was the promised honey mustard delicious, but that there was no mayonnaise whatsoever on her sandwich. We cannot praise El Rancho too highly for resisting the temptation -- so great here in the mayonnaise capital of the world -- to slather mayo on everything that sits on a plate.

Another word of praise is due, this time for the fries that accompanied her sandwich. El Rancho's salty offerings are very similar to McDonald's, a high rating on the french fry scale.

We all shared a piece of chocolate cake ($8) for dessert, and topped it off with cups of cappuccino, which, though drinkable, was not El Rancho's strong point. Their strong point is undeniably their tangy and potent margarita ($7), garnished with slices of lime, which are almost as rare a sight as lettuce in this town.

"Fussy" was the word one of my friends used to describe the service, and he was right. Our alternating waiter and waitress were simultaneously attentive and cautious, unnecessarily timid about removing empty plates. On the other hand, that's a small price to pay for service with a smile, and we did get our fair share of smiles.


El Rancho, located at 23/15 Ulitsa Prechistenka, is open from 11 a.m. to midnight. Tel. 201-5662. Rubles only. Nearest metro: Kropotkinskaya.