Matt’s El Ranco, yet another bad enchilada?

Last night we were going to go out and try this Vietnamese restaurant that was recommended to us, but I read online that it is in a strip mall and there is no atmosphere/bad service, although the food is by all reviewed accounts, excellent.
Since we both wanted to enjoy the really nice evening weather outside, and I was craving spicy food, we tried another tex-mex restaurant: Matt’s Famous El Rancho’s on South Lamar. It has been recommended to me by sooooo many people and I was very excited.

I just don’t get it. I am tempted to stop eating Tex-Mex (or Mexican) in Austin completely. I have yet to order an enchilada that tastes remotely like they did at the tiny joints we ate at every summer in Odessa. Granted, we are not in West Texas here. However, I counted down the months to “Ben’s Little Mexico” in Odessa, every year. Here I still haven’t found one that I would go to for a second time. The enchilada search continues. Everytime I order this dish it is completely different than at the previous location so I remain mystified, and disappointed. Last night they were covered in what, for all the world, seemed to be tomato sauce that you would put on spaghetti.

Jon and I really want to know what the difference between a Taco, a Burrito and an Enchilda is. According to our server, all three come in soft flour tortillas. The three descend in size: Burrito, Taco, Enchilda. They are all filled with either cheese, pork, beek, shrimp or chicken. The burritos and the enchiladas are covered in sauces (same choice of sauces), the taco is not. They generally all come with a side of guacamole.

Our enchiladas were miserable. The Tacos al Carbon turned out to be flour tortillas with chunks of meat. I am not complaining about that – since that appears to be what they are, and both the tortilal and meat were great (They did come with a scoop of guacamole on the side. I hate how this is served in the mound that shows that they use an ice cream scooper. It just looks disgusting like that, no matter how practical.) but this left the question, what is the difference between a Taco al Carbon and a Fajita meal, which is flour tortillas, beef (if you choose it), and guacamole on the side. Except that the fajitas also have veggies, and are more fun to make yourself?

Jon made the  point that all of this food feels redundant, but that this is “comfort food” for a lot of folks, and that is what they want.  It’s  refried beans,  rice, flour tortilla, a meat and guac on the side. They just package it twenty different ways and call it something different at these places. We really want to eat Mexican and feel that we have eaten something new, surprising, authentic, and well, good…and we keep being disappointed at these local restaurants that everyone says we “have to go to.” We made a pact to start driving into areas where we’ve noticed it is clearly hispanic, and/or places that no one has ever mentioned.

On the other hand, I may just need to go to only places where this guy recommends.  He knows his stuff. And I should do some heavy research before the next time we step out to try Tex-Mex, or Austin Tex-Mex. I don’t want to be ignorantly complaining. I don’t want to be complaining period. I am going to learn what the real differences are, and what, if any, difference there is between Tex-Mex in Austin and elsewhere in Texas. Incidentally, when I searched Matt’s on his blog, he raves about it. He says that the ingredients are fresh and high quality, and that the tortillas are made in-house. I have to agree wholeheartedly with him on one point: the chips were hot and crunchy, free and refilled the moment I reached for the last one. The salsa was great as well. I did get myself in trouble filling up on them. And Matt’s patio was so nice, I can see us going back for drinks and chips, and splitting some fajitas. So maybe, with those things combined, we might return.

Still, that doesn’t solve the mystery for me – what is the difference between these dishes??

(Something tells me that Rosa, my Swiss foodie friend, will probalby know the answer to this even having never set foot in either the United States or Mexico… :) )


  1. I just sent you a personal email that you are welcome to post, giving a very simplified idea of what the differences are (or should be) between these dishes–because they really are different, even if they rely on the same set of minimal ingredients. Feel free to post! (The second one, with the quick descriptions of what makes a taco, vs. a fajita.) Much love, Mom

  2. Hehehe, how did you guess ;-P?!!!!

    Tacos = Corn tortillas fried in U shape (mostly) & wrapped around a filling.

    Enchiladas = Corn tortillas softened in oil and then dipped in sauce or served in a sauce. At the origin, without filling, but now with filling.

    Burritos = A tex-Mex speciality. Big tortillas (flour generally) wrapped around a filling.

    Does that help… I’m no specialist, though, so I might be wrong!



  3. First of all, let me say this– I think mexican food has acquired its own personality in the various parts of the world where it is served, and you CANNOT expect the dish you love from one part, to compare to one made in another. If you love the enchiladas from Odessa, then stop trying to find good enchiladas in Austin (did all the mexican restaurants in Odessa have enchiladas that tasted the same? Or is that one restaurant just one of those gems that blows everything away? If so it might be unfair to compare ANYONE else’s enchiladas to that one favorite). It’d be like finding a favorite wine that blew you away from one region in France, and expecting another region with a different type of grape to blow you away with the same taste. I don’t mean that in a mean way at all, but you just can’t expect to have one thing compare to the other and it will inhibit your ability to enjoy the food for what it is. For example California “fresh mex” is so, so different from tex-mex and if I go to restaurants here expecting to get Austin tex-mex, of course I’ll be dissapointed. But I can find very good Cali-mex here if I go in expecting in to be its own thing.

    As for the different dishes– yes, they all include tortillas and meat. But they are quite different:

    TACO– smaller tortilla, either soft flour or hard corn, in a u-shape. The filling usually includes meat of some type, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and maybe guacamole and a few other specialties depending on the dish being served.
    BURRITO– these originated in California, actually. It’s a much larger tortilla filled with rice and beans, often along with cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and meat. But the basic fillings are rice and beans. The tortilla is wrapped all the way around to completely enclose the fillings, so you could potentially eat it with your hands and not have everything spill out (at least not till you get to the bottom 1/3 or so). There is something called a “wet burrito” that has sauce on top, so then you’d have to eat with a knife and fork. Also, most places make them huge enough so it’s still hard to eat a regular burrito with your hands. But, still possible.
    ENCHILADA– I’ve never been as big on these so not as certain, but these usually have just meat filling (and the meat made in some sort of sauce), I think, and sauce on top. They’re also usually skinnier than burritos, and wrapped all around with the ends open.
    FAJITAS (since you also mentioned them) will come in the hot platter where you assemble it yourself and the fillings usually include meat, bell peppers (grilled with the meat), cheese, guacamole, and sour cream, sometimes also with a side of rice and refried beans. You assemble the fajitas usually as you would a taco.

  4. Hmmm my super-long comment didn’t show up. Let me know if you don’t get it in your spam folder. Included a good description on the difference between those dishes (which have mostly to do with the type of tortilla, and the filling used- aside from the meat).

  5. Marcy, I think you made a good point. I shouldn’t try to find those odessa encha’s here, because it could’ve been a gem. in fact, the irony is I have found them in one other place…Greece. I kid you not. We went two nights in a row, a big group of us, and it’s the best Tex Mex any of us had ever had.
    What i did not/do not know, is if Tex Mex is so regional in TX. I know that CA fresh mex is not the same, but i don’t know what the regional differences are within the state of TX. But I do know that not a single one i’ve tried within Austin has tasted remotely like another, so I am confused when I order, because I never know what to expect taste-wise. wine varietals are incredibly diverse – these things involving basically the same ingredients: refried beans, spanish rice, flour tortillas and the same selection of meats in all occasions, so it is actually quite impressive that they can vary so much.
    I haven’t really expected to find Ben’s. Sure, I hoped, but I’ve also just expected to find something good, and I haven’t. What usually happens is I wait for Jon to comment first, so that I know it’s not just me, and then he looks up and says “this is sad” and I feel better :)I’d love to find out the differences in regional Tex-Mex, but that doesn’t mean that what I taste isn’t bad just because I don’t recognize it. sometimes it is just bad.

    When we had tacos last night they came with a smaller flour tortilla, beans and rice,and the lettuce/tomato/guac scoop. They were wrapped, and i ate it with my hands.
    The difference between that and a burrito then,is that the beans and rice were on the side and the tortilla was smaller?
    and i still don’t get the difference between our meat taco plate and fajitas, except for the absence of grilled onions and bell peppers.
    incidentally, did you know that red bell peppers are three times as nutritionally good for you as green ones? tangent, but thought i would pass it along.

  6. Simplified (and a bit reductive)–


    a taco is a FRIED CORN tortilla, filled with either ground meat with spices, also fried (Tex Mex) or shredded beef (interior Mexico), topped with lettuce, tomato, shredded (unmelted) cheese, and salsa. Guac and sour cream are later additions for Tex-and California-Mex

    a burrito is an UNFRIED FLOUR (heated–steamed) tortilla (quite large) filled with beans or beef or both, and melted cheese and chili sauce and onions

    an enchilada can be corn or flour, but corn is preferred. NOT FRIED, but BAKED, rolled around cheese, or beef, or chicken, and onions, with chili sauce on top (along with other condiments, such as green chili sauce, more cheese and onions

    a fajita uses heated flour tortillas to embrace grilled skirt (flank) steak and sometimes chicken, along with grilled peppers and onions

    Very different textures and flavors, though your basic carbohydrate and proteins show up in all, as in most main course recipes

    They should not taste the same or “feel” the same at all–quite distinct. My favorite combos are a taco, an enchilada, and a chile relleno, with rice and beans on the side. (I’m too picky about my guacamole to order it most places).

  7. mom,
    ah ha. perhaps the tacos al carbon being tenderloin and the fajitas being flank steak.
    our taco was not fried, and it was not shredded or chopped, it was big ol’ hunks of meat, but it was good!

  8. What you got was NOT a “taco”–I hate it when places do that.

    But glad it was good.

    Yes, the cut of meat makes a big difference in what the dish is called—that is true all over the world.

    And, yes, Ben’s in Odessa was a gem, for many many years. That’s Tex-Mex—and other than La Fonda San Miguel (which flirts with interior Mexican food), most places in Austin SHOULD be Tex-Mex. There are, however, 4 major regional differences of genuine Mexican food. Odessa used to have one of the others (different from La Fonda), and I didn’t much care for it. Almost European, actually, in its choice of cheeses and cuts of meat.

    but then, I’m a Tex-Mex fan and loved Ben’s and Manuel’s (same owner at one time) growing up–and then treating you guys to it!


  9. this entire post made me so incredibly INCREDIBLY HUNGRY for mexican food, you can’t even imagine lol.

  10. I agree with your mom, rice and beans IN a taco is just weird.
    As for the enchiladas all tasting different, is it b/c you’re choosing different fillings and sauces? Usually there’s quite a few choices for meats/cheese fillings and sauces to choose from, and two separate combinations are going to taste completely different (chicken enchilada with cilantro sauce vs beef and cheese enchilada with spanish red sauce, for example).
    Another thought– you are pregnant. Your taste buds register different things when pregnant, and your tastes change. I know I ate food while pregnant that I wholeheartedly disliked that I then tried again not-pregnant and was surprised to find that I liked, and this seems to be a pretty common pregnancy symptom. I have to wonder if once you give birth you might return to these places and the food will taste different to you. As for Jon, I’m wondering if he might just *GASP* not like mexican food. ; )

  11. Matts is an ok tex Mex place. I’m sorry Laurie and I didn’t go with you.

    Your search continues. Has anyone suggested El Arroya’s green chicken enchaladas? I usually order the baracho beans not refried.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Mexican food is OK! Not the finest not the most exciting, it doesn’t seem to be using a wide variety of ingredients at least in the majority of restaurants available.
    It’s a casual food, good for a quick fix but let’s be frank, this is speaking only about low to mid range restaurants which unfortunately represent the vast majority. I went to La Fonda San Miguel and there the ingredients were much more interesting and intricate, freshly and professionally prepared.
    Now what I dislike above all is poorly prepared food and bad ingredients. I’m picky an can unfortunately taste poor quality ingredients, reheated ones and it disgusts me. Matt’s el Rancho clearly put a lot of effort into lowering their kitchen’s costs and mass produce processed meals instead of cooking proper food.

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