Home on the Rancho
Lafayette’s appealing new restaurant harkens back to California’s early days in a totally modern way.
Ever since dining at Rancho Cantina, I’ve had a Wild West fantasy. After some carne asada and a couple of piquant margaritas de la casa, I’d walk bowlegged to the wall, grab one of the antique branding irons, thrust it in the grill’s shimmering coals, rope one of the four-legged stools—and sear my initials into its fuzzy cowhide-patterned cushion.
“Well, shucks,” I’d say. “I guess that’s my seal of approval.”
What makes Rancho Cantina so great is that the menu is inspired by what might be called true Californio cuisine—the chow rustled up on ranchos in the early 1800s. It reads somewhat Mexican, but with a style that is both gutsy and refined. The half chicken, for instance, is marinated in a house-made chile rub, then pressed, crisped, and given a light char on the flat-top grill before a final perfume over smoky coals. It’s served with warm tortillas and the restaurant’s signature fennel and herb slaw—a refreshing counterpoint you can find on any dish from the wood-fired grill.
Co-owner Julie Mitchell’s grandfather was raised on a rancho, and her father and brothers still farm and raise cattle in Salinas Valley, where Mitchell grew up. Two years ago, Mitchell and her partner, Erik Peterson—both longtime Lafayette residents—decided to open a restaurant but needed a concept. The eureka moment came when Mitchell picked up California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan, a cookbook containing many dishes evocative of Mitchell’s family’s longtime favorites. Mitchell, who owns the building (the space was previously a soccer store and a taqueria), and Peterson, formerly a fundraiser for the California Masonic Foundation, never looked back.
They designed a restaurant that’s thematic without being kitschy. You enter through a framed salvaged-wood gate topped with an iron archway (which spells out R-A-N-C-H-O) into a mosaic brick patio. The dining room is defined by wrought iron fixtures and a side wall of 150-year-old barn planks. Here, your eyes might be drawn to the bleached cow skull and fierce boar’s head, but the main feature is the live-fire grill—framed by dazzling blue tiles—where sweet smoke conspires with dried chiles to give dishes their distinctively complex character.
The menu was wisely compact and expertly executed on my opening week visits. And my antojitos (Mexican small plates) were all outrageously good. A ceviche of just-marinated pristine snapper was folded into a vibrant fiery tumble of avocado, pasilla peppers, and cucumber. Tostones were chile-tinted scoops of whipped potatoes, flash fried and served with sauce roja, a red pepper aioli. And the plump steamed mussels came in a flavorful viscous broth comprised of Mexican beer, shrimp stock, and house-made chile paste.
Chef Jorge Hernandez’s assertive yet balanced cooking style is evocative of two of the top restaurants on his résumé: Roland Passot’s Left Bank Brasserie (formerly in Pleasant Hill) and Rodney Worth’s The Pear Southern Bistro in Napa. But Hernandez’s Guadalajara upbringing comes through as well, most evident in the rich red chile sauce bathing plump enchiladas of chicken, caramelized onions, and a trio of Mexican cheeses.
The only dish that didn’t work for me was a modern California take on fish tacos. The beer-battered fried rock cod was heavy and starchy; I would have preferred a lick of smoke from the grill.
Rancho’s own cantina is first rate, with a talented mixologist (not a common sight on most ranchos, I’m sure) pouring house-crafted cocktails that highlight artisanal spirits rather than sugary mixes. Peterson is actively involved in the restaurant (Mitchell remains in real estate) and has researched Mexico’s earliest culinary influences, including Morocco and Spain. Consequently, I was able to enjoy a fino sherry cocktail paired with olives while perusing the menu one evening.
But it’s more than food and design that makes Rancho Cantina authentic. Lafayette was home to several ranchos established prior to statehood through grants from the Mexican government. That history gives the restaurant soul. And there’s no dish as soulful as Hernandez’s guisado, a long-simmered pork stew thick with California chiles that I can easily imagine slurping by a campfire with a band of compañeros.
In fact, if I get an order or two to go, that’s a dream that could come true.
Contact: 3616 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 282-3811, ranchocantina.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner Mon.–Sat.