Seduced by Flour Chips!

Photo by Joy BastThey will come, unquestionably, to Ricardo's El Ranchito. They will come on their way to and from their shopping excursions for bargain drywall at the Lowe's and for affordable children's shoes at the Wal-Mart, both of which are hurriedly going up now along Beach Boulevard in the southwesternmost tip of La Habra. They will pull recklessly in and out of the parking lots, between blurred glimpses of tractor-trailer trucks rumbling up and down the street, and in the gaps of thought in their cell phone yak, they will notice the nondescript Mexican restaurant across the way. They will be hungry. They will stop in, and they will conclude that Ricardo's is the best Mexican joint in all of Orange County, or at least north of the 91 freeway.

For years, there wasn't much of anything where those monolithic retail behemoths will soon open, just a Chevron plant the size of a college campus. That's why Ricardo's has always trolled anonymously for customers in a fog. But now the plant's gone, and the land upon which it once stood is covered with goofy-priced homes, a golf course blanketing half a mountainside, and, eventually, the aforementioned Lowe's and Wal-Mart.

More traffic means more people smitten by Ricardo's. Initially, they will be hooked on something they don't have to pay for—the flour tortilla chips dropped off in a basket at your table before you've even cracked the menu. Practically all self-respecting Mexican places serve you corn chips. Ricardo's does, too, but mixed in with them are those light, flaky flour chips that everybody wolfs down first, the perfect porous vehicle for Ricardo's green onion-freckled salsa. The chip basket empties fast, and people often order another go-round, requesting only the flour.

They do more with chips than just make them out of flour, like the Nachos La Habra, a humongous scoop of crunchiness bathed in melted queso, strewn over Ranchera Especial sauce (a tangy tomato-based brew of onions and green bell peppers, the perfect glue for spur-of-the-moment taco construction). There is no meat or beans (refried or otherwise) on this dish, and you couldn't care less.

Ricardo's has always had a ridiculous glut of superb chicken, beef, seafood and egg dishes (huevos rancheros and chorizo—served any time!), and the combination meals are a steal, weighed down with way too much food, all named after Mexican cities (like the Ensenada, which is either a carne asada, carnitas or chicken soft taco served with guacamole and pico de gallo and a choice of—take notes, now—a cheese enchilada, a shredded beef or chicken hard shell taco, taquito, chicken flauta, or beef tamale) and all under a paltry 10 bucks. I tend to order the camarones rancheros, where the perfectly butterflied shrimp, delivered dangerously hot to your table, mix droolingly with beans, Spanish rice, shredded lettuce and Ranchera Especial sauce. Then I roll it all up in the warm, hand-made tortillas that a frilly bloused waitress is always freshly pressing inside a glass-paneled booth, which sits squarely in the center of the room. For a finale, if there's stomach space, I'll order the sweet, creamy flan or the fried ice cream that's coated lusciously in corn flakes, whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

Once the horde of new Ricardo's recruits-to-come finish off their meals, they'll maybe notice touches besides the food, like the tons of hanging green plants (all oxygen-expelling real ones, not plastic) and the bright mariachi sombreros and colored wraps adorning the walls and the painted mural that's an homage to Henri Rousseau's exotic junglescape The Dream, only without the hot naked chick reclining on the sofa. And maybe they'll gaze out through the huge picture windows lining the main room. And maybe they'll see me looking back in, giving them the finger because they've taken over my restaurant—my beautiful, delicious Ricardo's El Ranchito.

Ricardo's El Ranchito, located at 1351 S. Beach. Blvd., La Habra, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 871-4692 or (562) 943-6020. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $40, food only. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.

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