Lunchtime at Rancho Grande

By  |  September 5, 2017
“Bubble Wrap & Farmworkers” (2013), by Diego Camposeco “Bubble Wrap & Farmworkers” (2013), by Diego Camposeco

Monticello, Florida, was rolling in royalty on this sticky June day: Miss Watermelon Queen, a seventeen-year-old in a tiara, waved languidly from her float, followed by a Teen Miss Watermelon Queen, a Junior Miss Watermelon Queen, a Young Miss Watermelon Queen, a Little Miss Watermelon Queen, a Tiny Miss Watermelon Queen, a Tiny Mr. Watermelon King, and an assortment of titled, sash-draped babies. A phalanx of vintage Mustangs rolled down North Jefferson behind a couple of cop cars playing glissandos on their sirens. Smokey Bear perched on top of a bulldozer while the dazzlingly sequined Platinum Precision Dance Team threw down some moves in front of a golf cart decorated with fancy sombreros and green, white, and red balloons. A pretty kid in a big-skirted blue dress sat on the back, her smile as wide as any parade queen’s. 

For a minute, I was worried. Those guys walking alongside the golf cart handing out lollipops looked like the waiters from Rancho Grande. Did that mean the restaurant was closed? It was a splendid pageant, major small-town fun, and we hadn’t even got to the epic seed-spitting contest—but I was there to eat. Tacos al carbon. Or fajitas poblanas. Maybe both, with a side of chile con queso. I waited another ten minutes until the parade tailed off, then bolted over to Cherry Street. The balloon-strung golf cart was already parked out front, and I saw Silvestre Serrano unlocking the door. “Lunch?” he said.

 

 

I never thought I’d experience the likes of Rancho Grande in Monticello, a Deep South hamlet named for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia manor (gleefully pronounced with a soft “c”) and about as cosmopolitan as a Baptist men’s prayer circle. Ten miles south of the Georgia line, Monticello is the seat of a county without a single traffic light—a place of candy-pink crape myrtles and old white houses with front yards garlanded with caladiums and shaded by live oak trees. A few months ago, I would have thought it weird to drive out to Monticello, population 2,400, for lunch. We have perfectly nice food in Tallahassee: locally owned burger places, oyster bars, hipsterish pizza joints where they top your pie with capicola or roasted figs. Then one spring day I went to meet my friend, the writer Robert Olen Butler. Bob lives out in the country near Monticello and discovered Rancho Grande several years ago. He told me it’s one of his favorite places in Florida, “home of the best vernacular Mexican food” he’s ever eaten.

When Bob, a Pulitzer Prize winner, talks about writing, I listen. Same with when he talks about food. 

“Drive around the courthouse, take a right, then left,” he said. “You’ll see it.” 

I saw it. Rancho Grande is painted in vivacious shades of saffron yellow and calabaza orange, with an enormous agave growing by the street. Inside, the restaurant is decorated in gringo-friendly clichés: black sombreros hanging over the cash register, red pepper festoons, burros, Dos Equis beer bunting hanging from the ceiling—visual shorthand designed to say “Mexico!” to guests who may have never been closer to our southern neighbor than the Taco Bell drive-thru. Bob ordered guacamole: “The Mexican guacamole.” 

He insisted I try it. Rancho Grande serves the usual kind—bright, creamy, and tasty—and also this sublime dish, listed on the menu as “Guacamole Como en el Rancho.” It arrived on its own large plate, ceremoniously, almost reverently: chunks of avocado fragrant with cilantro and piquant with peppers, scented with lime—not too much—and as green as April. 

A dark-haired, serious-looking thirty-something fellow in a brick-colored button-down shirt walked up to our booth. “Hey, Silvestre!” said Bob. He introduced me to Silvestre Serrano, the owner. 

“Serrano like the ham,” I said, trying to show that I know something about food.

“Serrano like the pepper,” said Silvestre. 

“Why is this guacamole so damn good?” I said. Silvestre told us Rancho Grande tries to bring in the right ingredients, nothing from a can. “The Mexican avocado is the real avocado,” he said. “It’s something in the dirt.” 

Terroir, the alchemical combination of soil, sun, and climate in a particular place that gives food its particular character. Chardonnay grapes grown in the northern part of Burgundy, where the vineyards rest on an ancient seabed, taste of sea shells and flint, while those near the Allier River are brighter and have notes of citrus. White peaches from Chilton County, Alabama, have a honey-inflected sweetness lacking in white peaches of Fort Valley, Georgia. Silvestre said avocados from Michoacán, where they’ve been cultivated for at least seven thousand years, taste better than avocados from California or Florida. I get this: I’m prepared to swear—based on decades of hands-on research—that watermelons from Jefferson County are the best on this planet. 

The Serrano family sprang originally from the mineral-rich ground of Guanajuato State in central Mexico. They transplanted themselves in the early 1990s to Ben Hill County in South Georgia. Silvestre told me his family has always been interested in food. His brother Jaime used to run a food truck from Immokalee, Florida, up to North Carolina, selling tacos and other Mexican street eats to migrant farmworkers. Silvestre opened a taquería in Fitzgerald, Georgia, in 2003. Now the four Serrano brothers own a small constellation of eateries in South Georgia and North Florida, serving Mexican country cooking to the small-town South. 

Bob called this place “the American Dream at its finest.” 

 

After the Watermelon Parade, Silvestre handed around menus as waiters delivered bowls of salsa and baskets of fresh-made chips. The little girl from the balloon-festooned golf cart pirouetted around the room, ribbons flying. Turns out she’s Silvestre’s nine-year-old daughter, Jacquelin. I told her I liked her blue dress. She giggled and said something to her father in Spanish. He answered in English. I sat with my Diet Coke as the half of Monticello that had ridden in the parade vied for a table with the half that had lined the streets to watch the show.

Revelers—black, white, and brown, from toddlers on up to grandmothers—ordered their tamales and enchiladas, sweet tea and tostadas, and I considered the history of my corner of the South. Spanish was the first European language spoken here in what is now Jefferson County. Hernando de Soto marched through these parts in 1540, losing some of the Extremaduran hogs he’d brought with him in the Florida swamps—and we’ve been barbecuing ever since. The Spanish began growing watermelons in North Florida around 1570: Monticello is still celebrating. 

My fajitas al pastor arrived, the onions golden, the pork still sizzling, on a platter with lettuce, frijoles, tomatoes, sour cream, cheese, and guacamole on the side. I blessed whatever mute, inglorious hero or heroine of the cocina had the genius to combine these flavors, and in that instant I knew two things: 1) It was enough food for two people. Maybe three. Nevertheless, I would eat it all; and 2) There wasn’t enough guacamole. Silvestre was busy at the cash register, so I flagged down Freddy, one of the waiters, and asked for an extra bowl.


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Diane Roberts is the author of Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America, among other books. She teaches at Florida State University.