Simple ingredients shine in unassuming eatery’s excellent, affordable tacos

Because of their minimalist aesthetic, Mexican street tacos — typically just tortillas with meat, onions and cilantro — have no showy components to hide behind. That means the simple ingredients need to shine.

They do at El Ranchito Taqueria.

By cooking traditional Mexican taco meats that are consistently tender, juicy and delicious, El Ranchito — a mom-and-pop operation in the Hilltop area — makes some of the better tacos I've eaten recently. Bonus: They only cost $2 apiece because, while some enticing entrees are offered, the restaurant specializes in taco truck-style fare sold at taco truck-like prices.

El Ranchito's somewhat eccentric little dining room — don't be surprised to hear kids running around upstairs — features eager-to-please table service, padded small booths and a few colorful adornments on its orange walls, the best being a round framed “portrait” of the establishment's barn-like exterior. Overall, the simple space registers as a grade above a fast food place, but one whose constant stream of customers speaks to the eatery's in-demand cuisine.

Two starters are offered and both are pleasant if unexceptional: Nachos con Salsa ($2.50) — a big basket of just-fried, crisp-yet-puffy tortilla chips accompanied by an uncharacteristically average tomato salsa, and Nachos con Guacamole ($3.50) — the same good chips served with a fresh and chunky guacamole that would be even better if it had any chilies in it.

El Ranchito's classic street tacos — all of which arrive in very respectable warm, soft corn tortillas — are terrific just as is. These include the drips-down-your-chin tinga (delightful chicken stew with onions and a smoky chipotle sauce), delectable carne asada (expertly seasoned and griddled steak), a rare local version of properly cooked carnitas (pork simmered and fried in its own rendered fat), punchy, griddle-crisped chorizo, and addictive adobado (zippy pork tips flavored like mild chorizo).

If feeling a little adventurous, try the wonderful lengua. And try not to get hung up on the fact that these extremely tender chunks of what taste like intense roast beef are made from a cow's tongue. If feeling more adventurous, try the super-flavorful cabeza (cow's head meat). Most tacos benefit from a squeeze of lime and drops of the provided hot sauces, but be careful with the latter, because the green one is fiery and the red sauce can be downright mind altering.

El Ranchito's taco meats can also grace more elaborate fried masa vehicles garnished with pico de gallo, lettuce, cheese, crema and flavorful refried beans. Every one of these gloriously messy items that I sampled tasted great, but I had to contend with various degrees of greasiness.

My favorite to initially bite into, the toasted-corn-flavor-flaunting gordita ($2.75) — two puffy and crunchy, little masa pancakes sandwiching the piled-high toppings — alas, turned out to be the greasiest. The least oily fried masa constructions I munched on were the crackly, highly recommended tostadas ($2.50). I'd rank the sopes ($2.50) — crisp discs with raised edges — as somewhere in between.

A handful of entrees are listed under “platillos” on El Ranchito's color photo-filled menu. The Carne Asada platter ($11.90) looked and tasted even better than it appeared in its tempting picture.

A generous amount of seared thin-sliced steak that was more tender than not was topped with sauteed onions and livened by lime juice. On the side were very good whole pinto beans, nice Mexican rice, warm tortillas and roll-your-own taco garnishes such as creamy avocado and pico de gallo. The hulking, relatively inexpensive meal was so good that I plan on returning to try a few other entrees at this hard-working, deservedly popular and unassuming little Mexican joint.