The old saying is “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” That can also be applied to restaurants – at least some times. Left entirely to my own devices, I have to admit its highly unlikely that I would ever have chosen to walk (or drive) into Ranch Doña Maria, a small hovel of a restaurant off a highway outside of Santiago, Chile. On first look, the setting wasn’t particularly attractive, there were few customers and let’s just say that it is unlikely that the NYC Department of Health would award it an “A” rating. However, not having gone and eaten there would definitely have been my loss.
It took us a while to find the place that was recommended by Rodolfo Guzman. Raul Yañez Campos, our guide, hadn’t been there before either. Eventually, though, after a few phone calls and GPS spotting, we pulled into a dusty driveway with true free-range chickens that appeared to be the place. A sign on the wall confirmed it.
To get to the dining area in a semi-enclosed patio we had to walk past the traditional clay ovens and through a small door. There were a number of empty tables late on this Saturday afternoon with only one family occupying a table in the far corner of the room. We selected a long table with a red table cloth and white place mats near the entrance and sat down on red plastic lawn chairs.
Truth was, we had already had a significant breakfast and a big lunch. I wasn’t really all that hungry, but this place supposedly had some of the best empanadas around and they were made in an entirely traditional way. I was up for tasting one, but not much more than that.
The menu was not extensive. The fact that they only served a few different items was encouraging to me. It suggested that they pay close attention to doing a few things well.
Shortly after we sat down, our empanadas appeared on the table. These meat based empanadas had been baked in the clay oven that we had passed on our way in to the restaurant. This one was still warm, but it had cooled sufficiently to eat it without scalding myself.
The empanada was filled with chunks of beef , onions raisins, olives and spices. It was savory with a hint of sweetness. The true glory of the empanada, however, lay in its outstanding crust. I may not have been too hungry when I sat down, but as often happens with truly great food, my appetite was once again stimulated.The bread was also just recently out of the oven and quite delicious for it. This none-too-fancy, but good local wine was just right for washing everything down.
Sometimes the simplest things really are the best. The national salad, aka Ensalada Chilena, is a simple one based on wonderfully ripe and juicy end-of-summer tomatoes and sweet onions. This was the essence of late summer/early fall. I will have to try to replicate it at home in late August/September, but I doubt that I will be able to achieve these deceptively simple, but wonderful results.
Somehow my appetite became stimulated enough to not just try this amazing oven roasted pork rib, but to devour it completely. The outer part may have been a touch dry, but that was compensated for by the deliciously spiced and crisped outer crust. The inner meat, however, was totally succulent, juicy and one of the most delicious pieces of pork in my experience. Regardless of how full my body may have felt, I couldn’t help but be a total glutton. It was simply too good not to finish.Dessert was excellent too. The leche asada, very similar to a crema Catalana, was well made and delicious.
Please check out the slide show for more photos of this wonderful experience including photos that, I believe, capture the essence of what the place is all about.
Rancho Doña Maria is the kind of restaurant that old Chowhounders live for. Off the beaten track, a bit worn at the edges, but serving absolutely wonderful, unpretentious, traditional food – these are all features that lead to a sense of discovery and often to a truly special experience. Such was the case here. If I wasn’t full before this second lunch, I was when we left – and happily so. This day, however, was not over. We still had dinner to come!