A problem with culinary identity

Eats

January 17, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THERE is good food to be eaten at El Rancho, a little corner establishment in the heart of Fells Point. One recent evening, there was a meaty crab cake broiled golden-brown, two tender lamb chops cooked slightly pink, shrimp and rice in a tasty brown garlic roux, a platter of fresh fried plantains and a seafood soup that was chock-full of shellfish.

And a return trip for lunch two days later yielded a plate of deep-fried eggplant served with tomato-basil sauce and pasta, a salad of crispy iceberg lettuce, capers, onions, tomatoes and peppers dressed in a tangy vinaigrette, and homemade rice pudding.

Yet there's something amiss at El Rancho. Foot traffic ought to be good, because the 18-month-old restaurant sits on one of Fells Point's central corners at Fleet and Ann streets. The prices are cheap; the fried-chicken special was $2.95. Yet both times we went, the restaurant was relatively empty. Only one other table was in use during each visit.

What's missing is a strong culinary identity and attention to detail. Jose Guzman Jr., the affable, entertaining proprietor, will tell you about his plans for the restaurant that he and his father, an acclaimed chef at Tio Pepe, own. He says the food primarily is Spanish by way of the Dominican Republic, where the Guzmans are from. But we waded through a lot of un-Spanish items like spaghetti, steak, cheeseburgers and steak subs in order to find those with a Spanish accent.

For instance, nothing sounded Spanish about the fried-chicken special that we showed an interest in. Guzman persuaded us, instead, to get the other, equally un-Spanish special of two lamb chops and a crab cake. No side dishes were offered. The chops had gravy, but the crab cake came without any sauce. The brown entree cried out for a little starch and greenery - even a sprig of parsley.

The fried eggplant with tomato-basil sauce was more colorful and, according to Guzman, more Spanish. But the sauce was poured over pasta instead of the more traditionally authentic Dominican side of rice. That's because Guzman Jr. and his father believe that Americans prefer pasta to rice.

When the Guzmans do authentic Spanish-Dominican fare, things improve.

The sweet, small shrimp in garlic-saffron sauce that circumscribed a large igloo of rice exuded wonderful flavor. The seafood soup was a delight to see as well as taste. Four black mussel shells jutted above the rim of the bowl, which was packed with littleneck clams, crab meat and shrimp covered by a rich saffron broth. We loved the delicious mild taste of the fried plantains that Guzman peeled in front of us.

Dessert is not a regular item on the menu. But if the rice pudding is available, it's worth ordering. It is served warm in a pretty metal sherbet dish and is redolent of cinnamon.

Other aspects of presentation need work, however. The cutlery has a cool, vintage look that deserves to be paired with real glassware instead of the foam drinking cups we got. And while the 21-seat dining room is flooded with light, neither the hanging plants nor framed commendations about Guzman Senior are decorative enough to really dress up the atmosphere.

Guzman says he'd like to hire a decorator. He'd also like to have valet parking and a staff that serves baked Alaskas tableside. Yet, his restaurant's success really depends on walking before running.

El Rancho

1747 Fleet St.

410-732-3328

Open: For lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday

Credit cards: None accepted

Prices: Appetizers $1.95 to $3.95; entrees $3.79 to $11.95

Food: **1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere:**1/2

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