By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Oscar Acosta recalls telling his wife, Dulce, before they got married, “One day we’re going to have a restaurant.”
The couple first met at a farmers market in their native Mexico City. They eventually moved to Spring Valley, where they run one of the best and most underrated Mexican restaurants in San Diego County called Ranas Mexico City Cuisine.
The word “ranas” translates to frog, and the amphibian appears prolifically as Talavera décor throughout the elegant dining room and bar area.
“All of the recipes on the menu are my wife’s,” Acosta pointed out. “She has hands of love in the kitchen. Opening this restaurant was a dream come true,” he added.
Dulce is a self-taught cook with expertise in dishes from her urban homeland. For starters, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere on this side of the border mole sauces as sensational as hers.
There’s a green version made with pureed pumpkin seeds; a creamy white rendition bursting with pulverized almonds and pistachio nuts; and a dark-brown admixture of 52 ingredients that includes chocolate, bananas and multiple varieties of chili peppers.
“Amazing, incredible and yummy” my dinner companion effused after his fork made the first round through Ranas’ top-selling tri-color enchiladas, which are served with rice and silky vegetarian refried beans made with extra virgin olive oil.
Each enchilada was separately bathed in the three mole sauces. Per our request, one of the enchiladas was stuffed with mild cheddar and the other two with queso fresco. I fully concurred with my friend’s raves when trying them, concluding it was impossible to pick a favorite.
Unless visiting for breakfast or lunch, you’re out of luck finding burritos and tacos on the late-day menu. In the face of so many dishes obscure to local Mexican restaurants, I would have skipped them anyhow.
Pambazos, for example, are super tasty sandwiches filled with a choice of meat. Served on large, puffy rolls similar to tortas, the bread is dunked into bright-red guajillo chili sauce and grilled before the sandwich is constructed.
I chose carnitas, layered also inside with cotija cheese, lettuce, sour cream and peppery green sauce. The pulled pork was flavored deeply with fresh orange and lemon juices, and the soaked roll offered a spicy tang in every bite. All combined, it was one of the most ravishing sandwiches I ever ate.
Equally complex was the “chile Azteca,” a roasted poblano chili stuffed with house-made mashed potatoes and grated cotija cheese. The pepper was crowned with non-acidic tomato sauce that completely loses it rosy color due to black huitlacoche mixed in.
Known also as corn smut, huitlacoche is a luscious, edible fungus that grows naturally on ears of corn. A delicacy in American kitchens, it’s used commonly throughout Mexico to impart a bewitching truffle-like essence to food.
Zucchini blossoms show up in a number of dishes, such as in the “ying & yang, an appetizer of two modest-size quesadillas — one with a thin layer of the earthy tasting blossoms seasoned with epazote and the other with huitlacoche.
Served naked without any garnishments, we dipped them into some of the house sauces that included creamy chipotle and a fabulously rich peanut butter sauce used for dressing a chicken breast dinner as well as shredded chicken served over a huarache (dense masa shaped like a sandal).
As new, enticing flavors kept emerging from the dishes we ordered, a live harpist supplied a mesmerizing feel to the colorful dining room with his soft, plucky melodies. Compared to scores of Mexican restaurants I’ve patronized north of the border, this was no ordinary meal.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.