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Holy camarones — Mi Ranchito doesn't skimp on the shrimp

Just in time for Valentine's Day, a little story of true love (and shrimp).

A few years back Alicia Aguirre was living in southern Virginia, working at one of her father's two Mi Ranchito Mexican restaurants. She took a vacation to Guadalajara, her father's birthplace, to see family. There she met a fellow tourist who was also visiting relatives and who also worked in a U.S. restaurant, in South Carolina. A long-distance courtship ensued. By the time he popped the question, he'd relocated to St. Louis, and Alicia soon followed. But her ties to the family business proved as steadfast as her commitment to her betrothed. Before long, she suggested to her father that he open a Mi Ranchito here and put them in charge.

They found a home for the restaurant in a recently constructed University City strip mall, tucked incongruously at the intersection of Kingsland and Vernon Avenues, between Delmar and Olive. With so many ethnic-food options available on the Loop and the Link — retail districts with strong reputations for their global cuisine — Mi Ranchito's dull façade and hideaway location present a hurdle. This is no love-at-first-sight kind of place; it's more of a blind date.

Once you get inside, any nervous jitters are quickly assuaged. Mi Ranchito translates to "my little ranch," and that's how the place is decorated. The parapets that separate the rows of booths are adorned here and there with cowboy hats, boots and saddles, and the walls are painted in earth tones, to resemble stucco. Open-air kitchens have always been common in Mexico, where they are often surrounded by bar-style seating so patrons can watch their food being prepared. Here the kitchen is open-air and visible, but not front and center. Day or night, the space is bright — too bright to attract fiesta-seeking rowdies looking to toss back cervezas (from a nice list of Mexican beers that includes Tecate, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca and Negra Modelo, as well as Anheuser-Busch products), but very well suited to the diner in search of a casual lunch or dinner.

The menu doesn't adhere to the cuisine of any geographic region, and it's extensive to a fault. Twenty-five different combination platters and 22 house-specialty plates are offered — plus an additional 24 lunch specials. If you find nothing that catches your fancy, there are also eleven steak entrées, six chicken, five pork and seven shrimp.

Ah, the shrimp — there's where my relationship with Mi Ranchito first sparked. No matter which of the dishes you choose, it's prepared with fresh, firm, formidable-sized shrimp, presented in bounteous quantities at ridiculously reasonable prices. To the shrimp soup, I say: holy camarones! Done in the style of a traditional chicken avocado soup (which happens to be the one other soup on the menu) but a little spicier, it's loaded with scallions, carrots, avocado, brown rice, lime wedges, broccoli, cauliflower, pico de gallo, zucchini and enough splendid shellfish that you're apt to find one in nearly every spoonful. You'll also find, after you're done gorging yourself, that there's still enough soup left over to take home and enjoy at least twice more.

Camarones Yucatán is made with shrimp that have been grilled, then simmered with green, red and yellow bell peppers, onions and zucchini; the dish comes sided with rice, lettuce, sour cream, a dirty-green guacamole and flour tortillas for wrapping it all up. Cooks in the Yucatán Peninsula don't rely on spices and chiles as much as their counterparts in other parts of Mexico — a welcome reprieve for those of us who prefer not to cry while we eat. This dish was delightful, the onion and pepper providing a kick of sweetness. But the bland store-bought tortillas proved detrimental to its flavor. (On the plus side, the corn tortillas used for tacos, enchiladas, etc., are house-made, authentic and upstanding.)

Gluttons with heatproof digestive systems are sure to lust after camarones a la diabla (that would be "shrimp of the Devil"), which consists simply of shrimp, rice, refried beans and a relentless hot sauce. The mild flavor and soft texture of the beans provide sweet relief from the rest of the dish, akin to the pail of water that always appears in cartoons when someone's behind gets scorched. Though Alicia tells me the kitchen does very little in the way of seasoning the refried beans, I could've sworn I detected a hint of cinnamon, reminiscent of pumpkin pie.

A Mexican shrimp cocktail isn't all that complex: Picture your standard American shrimp cocktail crossed with a bowl of gazpacho, served chilled in a parfait glass. Mi Ranchito's rendition is presented in an oversize wine goblet, replete with at least two dozen whole shrimp (again, pretty big ones). The tomato juice was creamy and piquant; the only thing separating this cocktail from absolute perfection was that the bits of avocado were too small to register their lush feel on the tongue. (One caveat: You have the option of ordering this shrimp cocktail warm. Don't.)

Though the shrimp proved the fastest way to nirvana for me, I enjoyed many other dishes as well. Named after a regular at one of Mi Ranchito's Virginia locations, "Vippy's Special" consists of two burritos stuffed with either grilled chicken or steak (or one of each), sided with rice and topped with a thick, pasty "cheese dip." While I appreciated the fine job the kitchen did of grilling the meat (especially the chicken, which so often inside a burrito translates as a burnt and crumbly afterthought), the real appeal was that mysterious cheese, which possessed a multidimensional, pungent aroma like Swiss. (Alicia declines to part with details, other than to say that the cheese was what made Vippy's heart sing.) Nachos Texanos defied their finger-food heritage, requiring a knife and fork thanks to all the hefty chunks of chicken, beef and peppers. (And more shrimp! On nachos!)

The dessert list is short and sweet. Both the flan (custard) and the sopaipilla (two scoops of vanilla ice cream perched atop a fried flour tortilla, kissed with honey and chocolate syrup) were fantastic. Fried ice cream was a buzzkill, brought down by a stale and soggy fried tortilla exterior. Another letdown was the margarita. Mi Ranchito is bedecked with mucho signage touting its 46-ounce "monster" margarita (also available in smaller quantities), but this drink is a big wimp. Whether you get it frozen (dispensed from a slush machine in lime, strawberry or piña colada) or fresh, it's concocted with neon-green sour mix poured out of a plastic jug. That misdemeanor gets elevated to felony status if you order it with a top-shelf tequila like Patrón or Milagro, neither of which can tame the sour mix's blunt, saccharine flavor.

There's no crime, of course, in taking your tequila straight — or raising a toast to Alicia Aguirre and her Ranchito.

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