I’m a creature of habit. And while that may sound mundane, hear me out before you pass judgment. I travel a fair amount. To help minimize the disorienting nature of travel I’ve developed a set of coping behaviors. I always stay at Hilton properties. Yes, selfishly it allows me to consolidate points. More importantly it guarantees that I’ll know how to access the Internet, where to find coffee and how to get a beer after 11:00. When I started this piece, my car was parked in 6D; the same section I park in for every trip. I never worry about finding my car – a gift since I’m usually exhausted and / or hung-over by that point.
Over time my habitual behaviors have also become a vehicle for discovery. Perhaps you’ve read my piece on fish tacos. Regardless of the city or restaurant, I can’t make a stop in Southern Cal without ordering fish tacos [LINK].
After writing my piece on said Tacos I developed a new perspective on habits. Suddenly my allegedly OCD behavior wasn’t a series of boring routines like computer code, rather I started seeing them as rituals, or sacred ceremonies that add richness to my life. And speaking of ritual, I realized I have a similar compulsion, er…ritual, for Huevos Rancheros.
It started innocently in the summer of 1999. I found myself in Coalinga, CA – perhaps the most unfortunately named city in all of California. And while it may sound like a genital armpit, Coalinga is an oasis, situated at the base of the San Joaquin Valley halfway between LA and San Fran.
Coalinga has two claims to fame. First of all, its home to the Harris Ranch, the largest domestic cattle ranch within the continental US. The name Harris Ranch also applies to the Harris family’s well-appointed restaurant / hotel / travel stop. Exit 334 has become a common resting point for travelers making the I-5 trek between LA and San Francisco. Think of it as California’s answer to West Branch. The next closest city is Fresno, seventy miles northeast, and let’s face it, no one’s going out of their way to stop in Fresno.
The San Joaquin Valley is also Tomato Country. The vast majority of all Tomato Soup, Tomato Sauce, Tomato Ketchup and V-8 produced in the US starts with vine-ripe tomatoes grown South of Sacramento and North of Bakersfield. During the 1999 harvest season I spent a week driving up and down the San Joaquin valley with a few seasoned Ag guys.
This was my first of what became many trips to the Valley. I was pretty green. Luckily these brotherly Ag guys decided to adopt me and show me the ropes. They nicknamed me “Gringo Grande.” And as a result I spent the remainder of the trip unsuccessfully trying to parlay that name into “G Love,” but I digress.
I leaned a tremendous amount on that trip. At the risk of sounding grandiose, it’s had a lasting impact both personally and professionally. Among the many important lessons learned on that trip I discovered the difference between an Almond and an A-mond (mechanical harvesters shake the “l” out of it), I learned that “revolutionary” GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) include providing port-a-potties for the field workers lest they shit on your lettuce, and I discovered what “real” Ag guys eat for breakfast…Huevos Rancheros. Perhaps I was caught up in the moment, perhaps I’m romanticizing a fond memory… still as I remember it, at that moment, Huevos Rancheros at the Harris Ranch was the best breakfast of my life.
Since that trip I’ve made ordering Huevos Rancheros a moral imperative. It’s my personal stand, proving that I’m a “Real Ag Guy.” Regardless of the location, regardless the alternatives, if a breakfast menu includes Huevos Rancheros GastroBoy is required to order.
WHAT EXACTLY IS HUEVOS RANCHEROS?
Before I go any further I thought I’d better help educate the new generation of Gringo Grandes reading this post.
FROM WIKIPEDIA… “Huevos Rancheros (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈweβoz ranˈtʃeɾos], "rancher's eggs") is a popular breakfast dish consisting of eggs served in the style of the traditional large mid-morning fare on rural Mexican farms.
The basic dish consists of fried eggs served upon lightly fried corn tortillas topped with a tomato-chili sauce. Refried beans, Mexican-style rice, slices of avocado, or guacamole are common accompaniments.”
Since that fateful trip in 1999 I’ve experienced a pretty diverse series of Huevos meals. To get a sense of range, log-on to the mobile Food Spotting App, search Huevos Rancheros and scroll through the photos. I’ve learned the subtleties of different tortilla presentations. The nuance of pinto vs. black vs. white beans, in all cases served whole vs. mashed and refried. I’ve learned that ranchero sauce, which should be a tomato-chili base, is often just salsa. Avocado, a prerequisite in California, is an upcharge in the Midwest. I’ve learned that most “breakfast” joints cannot cook rice and asking for poached eggs will often earn you a scowl.
HUEVOS RANCHEROS IN THE WILD
Fankly, the majority of these meals have left me wanting. On more than one occasion I’ve had a severe case of plate-envy, wishing my self-imposed breakfast ritual would allow for more biscuits and gravy or chicken and waffles. Still, I follow the code.
Earlier this year I was in San Antonio for a conference. With limited time before meetings I made a culinary concession – I decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. In all candor, I was really craving a Starbucks oatmeal and a fruit parfait (yes I’m aware of how pathetic that sounds) but the line at Starbucks was beyond daunting. So I sat down, opened the menu, saw Huevos Rancheros….and this piece was born.
It’s been fourteen years since my first Huevos at the Harris Ranch and truth be told this was the first time since Coalinga (say it again, “Coalinga,” still sounds dirty, doesn’t it?) I was genuinely surprised and delighted by what I received.
Most purists will likely argue that this was not a traditional Huevos Rancheros. To that I say, “so ‘effing what?” What’s so idealic about the original? It’s farm-hand peasant food. The equivalent to Mexican breakfast slop. I applaud the hotel culinary staff for making something more desirable. It was so good I had a repeat order the next day – and immediately starting scribing notes for this piece.
What made it so good? I don't want to blow the whole secret - but I'll give you a hint....CRUNCH.
Two weeks later I was in Santa Monica, CA and had a chance to revisit another one of my favorite interpretations, Cora’s Coffee Shoppe. This is definitely a more traditional presentation. Whether or not you order Huevos Racheros, make sure include Cora’s on your next Santa Monica culinary tour.
HUEVOS RANCHEROS IN ANN ARBOR
Back home I often break the Huevos man code. That said, I have made a point of sampling the local flavor. It turns out that there’s many more local options than you may initially believe. Here’s a bit on three of my more familiar options.
Seva (choice of eggs or tofu on a fried corn tortilla, with ranchero sauce, black beans, mexican rice and broiled cheese or daiya, with a steamed whole wheat tortilla, $10)
Here’s a fun antidote…For years my code name for Seva has been “Moosewood.” For those out-of-the-know, Moosewood is a long recognized [mostly] vegetarian restaurant in Ithica, New York. They drew national fame in the 80’s by publishing a series of vegetarian cookbooks.
From my perspective, this was a different era. In the 80’s having a vegetarian menu was novel enough that taste wasn’t appropriately measured. The predominant ingredients were brown rice and tofu and the predominant flavor was hot sauce, which was necessary to make all of that brown go down. I’ll further explain my perspective by reveling that in my last year of undergrad I lived in a co-op. We had communal dinners. The cook’s favorite source for recipes was a Moosewood cookbook. They were the most bland and monotonous meals of my life.
Now before you organize a hippi protest supporting Seva – let me say that I respect Seva. Not only do I long to have my photo taken atop Mt. Kilimanjaro wearing a blue Seva shirt so I can join the famed photo wall, I have absolute respect for any restaurant that endures for forty years relatively unchanged. It inhabits a special place in our community, and thereby earns leniency in my culinary evaluation.
Thinking about this article I did some research on Moosewood. In the process I learned that both Seva and Moosewood opened in 1973. They’re fraternal Big-Ten/ Ivy League twins. Be proud RTocco.
I just realized that I’ve written 270 words about Seva without specifically addressing the food. That pretty much sums up my culinary impression of Seva, whether we’re discussing Huevos or any other Moosewood-esque fare. If you’re going to Seva strictly for the food you need to let up on the Patchouli and read some Ayn Rand. In either case, if you want to experience the legend as it’s existed for forty years you’d better hurry. Their lease is up soon.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse (*Huevos Rancheros (V, GF) $9.50, Fresh scrambled eggs* on green chile salsa and topped with Ig Vella Monterey Jack cheese. Served over refried beans and a crispy tortilla. Add a side of bacon 3 pieces/$3.00)
This is where I remind everyone that I’m a totally biased Zingerman’s fan-boy. I once worked at the deli, my family eats at the Roadhouse more than any other restaurant in Ann Arbor and I have personal love and respect for many of the Zingy-people. This afternoon I’ll attend Grill’n, the annual Food Gatherer’s fundraiser – yet another example of the tremendous impact these two crazy mensches have had on our community.
Next, let me point out to all of the Zing-Haters that their version of Huevos is $0.50 cheaper than Seva. Take that Hippis.
Now for the eggs…ahh, see for yourself. Here’s what I will say – this is the heaviest, most flavorful bean dish Ann Arbor has to offer and Green Chile salsa will clear your sinuses. If my memory serves correctly, the tortillas were plated underneath the beans and eggs and I found that odd.
Aut Bar (Two eggs over easy topped with ranchero sauce and cheese. Served with two tortillas, rice and beans. $5.75)
Yes, I said Aut Bar. One of the best “Townie secrets” is Sunday Brunch at the Aut Bar. Not only is sitting outside in Braun Court one of the city’s most glorious respites, the outdoor seating serves as a nice safe zone protecting uneasy breaders afraid of crossing the threshold from the young militant Nancy-Boys who resent the breaders presence. Prior to being a bar the Aut was a Mexican restaurant. The flavor endures. Whatever you do, don’t leave the Aut Bar without trying and order of the sweet potatoes. Trust me.
PS: This is still very much an “alternative” bar. Bringing children into the Aut Bar restroom may result in some curious observations.
Where else? The short list of additional local options includes Northside Grille, Café Marie and Sabor Latino. What are your thoughts on these contestants? Are there others worth mention? Use the comments section to keep me from my lonely cloud of self-loathing and doubt.