South Philly's Mexican restaurant scene is so hot right now that, within 24 hours of publishing my ultimate food guide to 30-plus restaurants in "Puebladelphia," online at philly.com/mexican, I'd found another new gem to call a favorite. And there's something a little different about El Rancho Viejo, as well as something familiar. What's familiar: there are two hardworking immigrant families with roots in Puebla's San Mateo Ozolco behind this slender little BYOB with peach-colored walls and an open kitchen, which opened in March behind a low-slung brick facade at the corner of South Fifth Street and Carpenter. And the essentials of the menu here draw on handmade ingredients and traditional family recipes that inform everything from the hand-pressed tortillas for chalupas glazed with vivid green and orange salsas to the tender roast pork pibil tacos and an especially aromatic al pastor meat shaved off a turning trompa spit.
But then, suddenly, there are these chops sizzling on the grill — big, honking marbled slabs of prime-grade steaks and racks of lamb that are anything but common in the neighborhood's humble taquerias. It turns out one of the owners and co-chefs, Silvestre Rincón, has been the in-house butcher for many years at Center City's Capital Grille. He still works there three days a week, starting at 8 a.m. and getting off just in time to work the evening shift at El Rancho Viejo (the Old Ranch), which he co-owns with his American wife, Katelyn Scheideman; his sister Angel; and her husband, Elezar "Cali" Cortes, who still works his day job, too, at El Fuego. Among the four of them, Scheideman says, this menu really reflects "not just where we're from, but where we've been." That accounts for fancier offerings, like the beautiful cream of carrot soup with plump seared shrimp as well as the earthier tortilla soup made by Angel, the punchy salsas made by Cortes, and the unusual nachos topped with Thai-influenced lamb massaman curry that Rincón helped develop when he was a partner at the now-closed Tuk Tuk Real.
But it is those chops that most caught my attention, and not just because an 18-ounce bone-in prime strip or 20-ounce T-bone are a good deal at around $25. Rincón, who effortlessly cleaned a 24-ounce rack of Australian lamb to order ($27), knows how to handle good meat. The beef steaks (which I've yet to try) get his special chili-spiced rub, but the lamb is treated simply. That's because his mom's mole poblano — made on the family ranch in San Mateo, then shipped north — is all the embellishment those double-cut chops need. They're juicy, tender, and perfectly pink, and just a hint gamy as I dragged them through the silky brown sauce, which has no chocolate, unlike most other mole poblanos. It relies on the perfect balance of fruits, nuts, and various roasty chilies for a profile that's more smoke and spice than noticeably sweet. For the sweet tooth, there is the still-unnamed sundae special that brings hot churros stuffed with cajeta caramel over vanilla ice cream swirled with chocolate sauce and … vegetables. Roasted corn and sweet potatoes are surprisingly great for dessert: "It's just like home," says Rincón, whose family has created a compelling new home of their own in the heart of Mexican South Philly.
— Craig LaBan