3910 30th St.
"There's a new health food store in North Park, where Sunshine used to be."
Nutri-Girl rolled her eyes and gave me the there-is-nothing-you-can-tell-me-I-do-not-already-know sigh. "I've been there," she said. "It's kind of schwag."
"You know, it's bunk."
I think she was trying to be negative. Then again, this was from the woman who described Whole Foods as "a little ghet." Ranchos Natural Foods is a clean, cute improvement over the dirty, dismal, perpetually under-stocked Sunshine Foods, which-finally-closed last spring. The shelves are still a little sparse, but the new store is planning to expand soon. In the meantime, North Parkers can now pick up stevia powder and organic sushi rice while ordering up their daily double of wheatgrass, all without leaving the neighborhood.
Ranchos Natural Foods is the latest expansion of the successful Ranchos Cocina Vegetarian Mexican restaurant empire. Ranchos Cocina has three locations, two in Ocean Beach and a third next door to the new grocery on 30th Street, which is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily and seems to have a perpetual crowd loitering about on the sidewalk.
"They're really passionate about food," the checker at Ranchos Natural Foods said of his employers next door. Imagine that! Finally, a restaurateur who is passionate about food, I marveled.
But I'm not being fair. I am all for vegetarians (vegans, even). I go broke buying organic produce. I try not to eat steak more than two or three times a day. So despite their popularity, I walked in. Despite their predilection for Gypsy Kings, despite their cutesy-cluttered décor with far too many plants and their dual obsessions with crucifixes and Frida Kahlo, I wanted to like Ranchos Cocina.
Perusing the ridiculously extensive menu, featuring beef, chicken, pork and seafood, I wondered what, exactly, "vegetarian restaurant" meant. After all, every restaurant in the world has a salad or two on the menu, maybe even one that qualifies as vegan, but the last time I checked, Morton's wasn't billing itself as a "vegetarian chophouse." Too hungry to read the book all the way to the end, I ordered up the day's specials from a hand-written cardboard sign in the crowded doorway: garbanzo bean burrito and roasted corn and red pepper soup.
The latter was lukewarm water poured over limp, unseasoned vegetables.
"Try this," I said.
"Oh, god," my date sputtered after one spoonful.
"Yeah, I know. Isn't that the worst soup you've ever tasted?" (It occurs to me that I am a terrible dinner date.)
I performed open heart on the burrito, tearing it open, dumping in salt and pepper, emptying the salsa, only to regret having wasted the delicious homemade salsa. (The chips are excellent, too, although they tend to wait too long under a heat lamp.) I pointed out that the uninspired sides of seasoned rice and refried beans may have been the best part of my meal.
She had already wolfed down her small fish taco, but offered what was left of her small plate. "I have shredded iceberg, and, uh, some carrots."
No, thanks. Ranchos is unduly obsessed with iceberg lettuce, using it as filler on most of the plates, a good indicator that its school of vegetarianism is more political than nutritious. I counted one organic entry on the entire Ranchos dinner menu (the blue corn nacho appetizer). You can find more organic options on most upscale restaurant menus these days.
Of course, I wanted to like the place, so I kept going back. There were some pluses: those wonderful chips and salsa. The chicken mole was exceedingly tender, with a smooth and pleasantly complex, chocolaty coating. The lobster was rich and buttery, but nothing else on lobster fajita plate-bitter green peppers, lifeless onions-could live up to the meat. The fish taco was small but palatable, or so I hear.
In the end, the minuses dominated. Rubbery tamales. Lukewarm dishes. Thin, watery, bland guacamole. Service so abysmal, I got into the habit of refilling my own chips, salsa and water. And so on. Schwag, bunk, whatever you want to call it. But I really like that new grocery next door.
Carnivore, herbivore, omnivore? Vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, breatharian? Make your argument to cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.