A new Mexican-American restaurant — El Lago Ranchero — has opened on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch, taking over the premises formerly housing Eduardo's Cantina.
By billing itself as a Mexican Southwestern Grill, El Lago Ranchero points to some of the complicated relationships between Mexican and American cooking. Some restaurants in the U.S. do serve authentic Mexican food — I've eaten in them — places where you'll find menudo (tripe soup) and pipián (pumpkin seed) sauce, but for the most part diners are likely to encounter what has come to be known as Tex-Mex, Mexican cooking adapted for American tastes.
Even here things get confused, because El Lago Ranchero is right: this cooking belongs to the Southwest, not just to Texas. Still, it's a long way from Laredo to Lakewood Ranch, and the cooking at El Lago Ranchero reflects local demographics.
That being said, it's an amiable place. The dining room is modest in size, with sand-colored walls and large wooden beams to evoke a rustic atmosphere. There's also a small bar in the rear. Outside, the sidewalk is broad, allowing the restaurant to spread into the open, where diners can eat and indulge in some people-watching as well.
The food is a bit uneven in both authenticity and preparation, but the prices are easy on the pocketbook given the location, and El Lago Ranchero may still be finding its way.
For example, a Shrimp Taco ($10.99) was pleasant enough. Although the menu said it came with corn tortillas, mine were flour, and the "house chipotle sauce" was mayonnaise-based, which is not very Mexican, and pretty much lacked bite. But the shrimp were done well enough and went well with the lettuce and onions.
On the other hand, Enchiladas Verde ($11.99) did indeed use corn tortillas, and the tomatillo sauce was quite tasty. The tart, clean taste of the tomatillos livened up the chicken meat, and where the Shrimp Taco had been a bit bland, this was quite piquant.
Chile Relleno ($9.99) is a Tex-Mex standard, and El Lago Ranchero does a good version. It was indulgently gooey with cheese, but the charred taste of the poblano chili still came through, the caramelizing adding some depth of flavor.
Shrimp Diego ($14.99) is one of the restaurant's signature dishes and is an interesting concoction, involving bacon-wrapped shrimp served on a skewer with chipotle sauce. The bacon emerged as the most pronounced taste, the shrimp being slightly overcooked and the chipotle sauce just hovered in the background, like someone not sure about entering a room.
Chicken Mole ($12.99) is another signature dish and one that comes closest to real Mexican, using as it does the chocolate-based mole, a staple of Mexican cooking. The mole displayed some depth and complexity, although mine had been allowed to dry out a bit. The chicken was a boneless, skinless breast, so it needed the sauce.
Mole showed up unexpectedly in a Beef Burrito ($2.99) and worked very well, indeed. This was a burly dish in both substance and flavor, and the sauce — moist this time — made it one of the better burritos that I have had in a while. This is Tex-Mex cooking at its best, not complicated or fancy but very direct and bold.
El Lago Ranchero has a small selection of wines, the requisite margaritas and a good selection of Mexican beer, which is the drink I most prefer for this type of food. Service throughout the meal was very friendly and aimed to please.
Read Jack Winner's past columns at heraldtribune.com/diningout.