On a chilly morning just outside Maverick Square in East Boston, the scent of braising meat is enough to draw diners into Mi Rancho, a modest Colombian restaurant that opens its doors at 7 a.m. The space feels warm and friendly, with Mariachi music on the speakers, and neighbors and cops stopping in for coffee and arepas. The women behind the counter speak very little English, but a picture menu, and a glass case piled high with fried street snacks, sweet plantains, and stewed chicken make it simple enough to get a tasty meal with some enthusiastic pointing.
You order at a counter, and the food is brought to your linoleum-topped table. One of the tropical juices ($2) is a fine way to start the morning. We opt for mango, but they also offer guava, strawberry banana, and even tomato, all of which can be blended with sweetened condensed milk as a kind of shake ($2.50). A flavorful, filling breakfast burrito ($7) will warm you on blustery morning: spicy chorizo, tomato salsa, sweet peppers, plenty of melty Jack cheese, and fluffy scrambled eggs in a flour tortilla. A side of golden french fries comes with it.
Pancakes ($4.95) might not be the most authentic dish at this restaurant, but can you blame us for wanting a sweet foil to our deliciously salty burrito? They are cooked to order and light, but the maple syrup isn’t real.
For lunch or dinner start with empanadas ($1.60), fried corn pockets with either beef or chicken and potatoes. The savory little hand pies are even tastier when dipped into a mix of hot sauce and the pink house sauce that is basically a Thousand Island blend of ketchup and mayo. The squeeze bottles are in the cooler for you to help yourself.
As an entree, fried trout ($10.50) is perfectly cooked with a golden crust on the moist, flaky, butterflied fish. We sample two arepas, con carne desmechada ($6.50) arrives with flavorful pulled flank steak and a few bright garnishes of tomato and cilantro on a crispy fried round of masa (corn flour). The arepa con camarones ($6.75) is a bit puzzling; it’s topped with nicely cooked shrimp, tomatoes, what appear to be canned mushrooms, and a gooey pile of cheese, sprinkled with a little cilantro.
When we return on a weekend night, the food seems a little sad. Empanadas have been sitting under the lamp too long. Arrroz con pollo ($8.50) is a pile of yellow rice mixed with prune-y frozen vegetables and shredded white-meat chicken. Sliced hard-cooked egg scattered across the plate has an unappetizing dark ring around the yolk, and fried potato slices are soggy in places. The bones of a satisfying meal are there, but it isn’t fresh.
The daily soup is a brighter spot. Hen stew ($8.50) is a homey bowl of stewed meat on the bone, enormous pieces of carrot, a split starchy plantain, potato, and half ears of corn. The broth is slightly thickened, simple, and comforting, especially with the accompanying rice mixed in.
A side salad, with it is a bracing limey, cabbage slaw, ripe avocado, and slices of tomato, is a nice contrast to the starchy soup. With such an extensive menu, we’ve only dipped into Mi Rancho’s Colombian cuisine. We’ll be back to try the corn cakes, and the crisp pork skin, chicharron, preferably in the morning.
At Mi Rancho, the early bird catches the fresh empanada.