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Matt's El Rancho

We've only lived here for seven months, but right off the bat, people started recommending Matt's El Rancho. We've been several times and are usually satisfied but not blown away. The Bob Armstrong dip everyone raves over is decent but not amazing, but I did find the pecan-smoked brisket flautas to be a real treat. My husband's beef fajitas were great, if a little too heavy on the onions and peppers. A margarita and a mojito were refreshing and delicious. The service was friendly and attentive, even though we didn't appreciate the balloon-animal guy.

I've noticed some divided opinions on chowhound, and I'm curious why some seem to regard it as an institution while others dismiss it. Thanks for your perspectives.

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  1. The regard that it gets is because of how long the place has been around. My parents, and possibly their parents, have all dined there -- while they were students of the University of Texas. Austin has very few places that have that sort of longevity.

    But judged on food quality, Matt's isn't awesome. The food is (as you noticed) fairly mediocre.

    Personally, I love the Bob Armstrong dip. I think it is Matt's most reliable offering. Then again, I'm a fan of classic Tex-Mex queso. Those who aren't will find the Bob to be only so-so.

    1. We tried to go there once, several years ago. They stuck us at a table at the bar in an otherwise empty restaurant and left us to rot. After waiting 20 minutes with no water, no menu, no nothin', we walked out and haven't returned. Life's too short to wait for a server that long.

      1. I think that are a number of things they still do well. That in addition to good drinks and great service, along with the tradition, keep it high on people's list. There are lots of kinds of list. It might not be on my top great for food lists, but it would probably be on my top 10 lists of places to take out of town people wanting to experience Austin.

        1. Matt's is bad, bad, bad...

          If you must go to a tourist trap, why not go someplace with at least better food, like Chuy's (although just a bit better). I put Matt's down there with Oasis. Go for the view, but don't eat.

          1 Reply
          1. re: amysuehere

            My mother is flying in tomorrow, and I know we'll want to go out to lunch immediately. What would your suggestion be (instead of Matt's)?

          2. Matt's isn't great Tex-Mex, but it's a fun Austin place to go, and I would have no problem taking someone new from out of town (like your mom) there so she could get a little taste of Austin. Same with Gueros (which I actually like [duck]), El Arroyo, Chuys, Las Manitas, etc. If you want to expose her to really good Austin-style Tex-Mex, I would take her to Angies or Enchiladas y Mas. If, however, she's coming because she wants to eat top quality chow, none of these places should be on your list and you probably should look at MPH's posts. Depends what you're looking for. Good luck, and welcome to town!

            1. People certainly have different opinons on Mexican food don't they! I don't think Matt's is a tourist trap. Go on Sunday night and you will see politicos, power brokers, and half of west Austin. Try the chicken enchiladas verdes - have them put sour cream, raisens, nuts and onion slices on top, like they put on the chile relleno. Add a margarita - made with real lime juice. Superb. The chile relleno is my husband's favorite. I also like the fish Matt Martinez, and we like the chips - not the usual cardboard poured out of a sack. I personally would never choose Chuy's food over Matt's. No - Matt's is not haute cuisine - but it is reliable, fresh, and to me, much more varied and flavorful than Chuys - which seems to me to be lots of brown glop covered with cheese. And Matts is an old time Austin institution. It was here long, long before Chuy's. We used to eat at the old location -where the Four Seasons is now.

              1 Reply
              1. re: nancythenice

                I reckon I've eaten at El Rancho several hundred times since I was first there in 1964, when it was on the north side of 1st St. Once I discovered the chile relleno with beef I never ordered anything else. It is great comfort food, and I hope I live long enough to eat several hundred more. The chips are fried in house from thick tortillas and are superior to any other in town that I am aware of. Viva El Rancho!


              2. I just returned from lunch there with my family. It was everyone's first time at El Rancho, and I was hopeful for a decent (not astounding) tex-mex meal with a little Austin ambiance. The food was barely passable. I had heard good things about three dishes: Bob Armstrong Dip, Chile Rellenos and Green Enchiladas. All three were served at our table, and only the Enchiladas were given a (luke-warm) endorsement. The fourth dish served was the pecan-smoked brisket tacos. This was also a relative "blah". Not bad, but not good either. My wife had the enchiladas and liked them, but said "They're no El Cholo" (Los Angeles). My parents had a cheese relleno and a beef relleno, and both said there was so much going on on the plate )sour cream, raisins, pecans etc.) that they "never tasted and relleno!!". Their way of saying the main component was lost to the sideshow.

                The Bob Armstrong dip tasted like I made it with Velveeta and Hormel chili! Tasty in its own right, but not worthy of the iconic status it seems to have been given. Maybe I was expecting too much from the reviews I had read about it, but I've had the same or better queso several hundred times in many restaurants and home parties.

                Ambiance was lovely, service was great and my dad paid, so what the heck do I care!!?

                Strangely, I would go back, but with much lower expectations...The menu looked good, so surely there is something there that I can find. In any case, I guess I come down on the "not so good" side of this debate...

                10 Replies
                1. re: Bababooey

                  Reading your other post, and now reading this one, I've got some context to what you're saying.

                  "Classic Tex-Mex", to me at least, is gooey, high-fat, high-carb, greasy food. It doesn't imply some level of authenticity or dramatic quality; quite the opposite, it means that instead of preparing authentic Mexican cuisine, you're generating an Americanized knock-off. Some people love it, some people don't. FYI, if you're not into this type of cuisine, you should avoid the other "classic" Tex-Mex joints in town (such as Enchiladas Y Mas and Tamale House #3). [I should mention: your description of the Bob is dead on -- a gooey mass of yellow-orange cheese, loaded with ground beef, guacamole, and pico de gallo -- and just thinking about it makes me hungry!]

                  To make an analogous example: Sushi. I love it. Some people don't. I can say, "Uchi has great sake toro!" But if you don't like raw fish, you'll be disappointed no matter how good it is. It just isn't your kind of food.

                  1. re: tom in austin

                    tom in austin,

                    If you define "classic Tex-Mex" as "gooey, high-fat, high-carb, greasy food" that "doesn't imply some level of authenticity or dramatic quality" but instead "quite the opposite," then I’m not sure what to make of your first comment in this thread that Matt’s El Rancho is “mediocre.”

                    There are criteria by which to judge the deliciousness of sake toro. What are your criteria for judging what you call "Tex-Mex"? Why is Matt’s El Rancho mediocre, in your opinion? What would a delicious version of their food taste like?

                    By the way, yours is not my definition of Tex-Mex, but I'm using the term as you do for the purpose of this discussion.


                    1. re: MPH

                      I'm glad you asked!

                      My perception of Tex-Mex is greasy, fatty, gut-busting cuisine: tortilla chips, hot red salsa, queso (of the gooey yellow-orange variety), guacamole with plenty of onions, surprisingly fresh pico de gallo, beef or cheese enchiladas con carne, cripspy beef tacos, sizzling cuts of flank or skirt steak grilled up as beef fajitas amongst thin, curled slices of onion, freshly-made piping hot flour tortillas... You'll find this cuisine at Tamale House #3, or Enchiladas Y Mas, or any number of other celebrated locations in Austin.

                      It may not be a traditional, revered, or "authentic" form of food. It may in fact be the food version of a pidgin tongue: the jarring collision of two or more cultures smashing together to create something new. But it is steeped in at least twenty years of tradition, and (like sushi) while it might not be for everyone, I find it to be delicious.

                      The offerings of rich moles, pastor, barbacoa, etc. -- while I find it delicious, to me, it isn't Tex-Mex. Heck, I like amazing mole better than almost anything, but I wouldn't call it Tex-Mex. T-M originated in Texas, a gringo's perspective on classic Mexican dishes. It shares the names of many Mexican dishes, but often not the form.

                      1. re: tom in austin

                        Salsas, guacamole, fried tortilla chips, flour tortillas, and pico de gallo aren't greasy and fatty, though, and they are as Mexican in origin as mole and barbacoa. But again, we have different definitions of Tex-Mex. If you consider Tex-Mex to mean "the Texan version of something Mexican," as the OED does, then the question is: Which Texans? To me, Tex-Mex is like a regional style of Mexican food; or, what Tejanos (Texans of Mexican ancestry) do with Mexican cooking in this state. Thus, lengua, cabrito, barbacoa, tamales, fajitas, etc.—they all count. Something like cochinita pibil, on the other hand, does not. Food in Mexico often includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; Tejano cooking usually doesn't. Enchiladas can go either way, depending on the ingredients and seasonings.

                        My real question to you is not what you mean by Tex-Mex. You made that pretty clear. Instead, what restaurant in town makes a delicious version of the same foods that Matt's El Rancho makes "fairly mediocre"?

                        From your other posts, I doubt you're saying that all food of the type you call Tex-Mex is equally unimpressive. So, what are the criteria for the best beef or cheese enchiladas con carne, for example, and where would someone who liked this dish find them?


                        1. re: MPH

                          You guys need to read this thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/364142

                          My opinion: There's no such thing as "authentic" food. One person's fabulous tex-mex is another's disgusting Velveeta gut-bomb. One person's perfect enchilada is another's over-sauced, under-seasoned, soggy mess of a tortilla tube. What is "authentic" cuisine is so much a function of our heritage, upbringing, experiences, likes and dislikes. I was brought up with an Italian grandmother from Sicily. There is no Italian restaurant on earth that will ever make her dishes "right" (for me). Not because they're not delicious, but because I have 20 years of eating Grandma's version!

                          I think Tex-Mex is too general a term to have any significant disagreement about it's definition. There is a continuum of styles ranging from the interior Mexican described by MPH all the way to Taco Bell and other "gringo-mex". In the middle are Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, New-Mex, Old-Mex, Up-Mex, Down-Mex, Left-Mex and Right-Mex. ALl have the potential to offer super delicious versions of many of the same dishes, and all ofthe potential to be, well, not delicious.

                          My vote is to not focus on the categories, but on the deliciousness of the meal, whatever kind of "-Mex" it is.

                          1. re: Bababooey

                            Fair enough. The question remains unanswered. For those who like the type of food that Matt's El Rancho serves up (whatever category you put it in), where is there a delicious version?

                            The deliciousness is the key, but it is subjective, and the context of palate and cuisine are important in understanding based just on words on a web site.

                          2. re: MPH

                            (This is in response to MPH.)

                            Heck no! I love Tex-Mex.

                            When you say that Tex-Mex is food made by Texans of Mexican ancestry, it underscores that you and I have massively different definitions. Right off the bat I'll concede that you're probably right, and I'm probably wrong, and that Tex-Mex's definition is probably the one you use.

                            However, to me, it doesn't matter who the heck is making it. It is a style of cuisine. It is regional, but only loosely: I noticed that the food the locals refer to as Tex-Mex in West Texas (Midland, for example) is different than what the locals regard as Tex-Mex in Austin, which is different from Houston, which is different from St. Louis, MO.

                            See what I'm saying? In my mind, Tex-Mex isn't made by Texan Mexicans. Tex-Mex is a (relatively) new style of cuisine influenced by riffing on Mexican styles of cooking.

                            What I refer to as just plain, classic Tex-Mex can be found (as I've said several times) at places like Enchiladas Y Mas and Tamale House. The symbolic items of this style of food are (in my opinion) the greasy cheese enchilada covered in chili con carne and the crispy beef taco. You could have ordered this exact thing thirty years ago at El Chico, Marcos, or any number of mediocre Tex-Mex chains throughout Texas. It has become so embedded in Texan food that it certainly shouldn't be considered a Mexican food. It is thoroughly Americanized at this point. What we call a burrito is a thoroughly American invention. In many places in Mexico, if you requested a burrito, they'd look at you as if you were stupid. If you explained what you wanted, they'd say, "Ah! You want a taco. Great. I was curious why you were asking for a small donkey." (Disclaimer: a different sort of 'burrito' originates from North Mexico.)

                            Finally, I reject the notion that new styles of cuisine are somehow inherently illegitimate or inferior to pure and authentic forms. The Beatles borrowed from Chuck Berry; it doesn't mean the Beatles are innately inferior to Chuck Berry.

                            1. re: tom in austin


                              I shouldn’t have gotten into my idea of Tex-Mex. I posted my original query to you because I was confused by your posts in this thread. First, you said to avoid Matt’s El Rancho because it’s “fairly mediocre” except for the dip that you like. Then, in response to Bababooey above, you said that “classic Tex Mex” like they serve at Matt’s El Rancho is greasy and cheesey, but it’s not “awesome.” I couldn’t tell if you were saying, “Embrace the mediocrity!” As in: Matt’s is bad but that’s what’s so good about it. Or, I thought, maybe you were suggesting that there are better versions of Matt’s food out there, but you didn’t think Bababooey would be interested in them.

                              That’s why I asked where people should go for better versions of what Matt’s serves (like cheese enchiladas). Or maybe you could tell us what you do like at Matt’s and why. Mister F. gets into that below.

                              This isn’t for my benefit, since I don’t care for the chow at MER. But visitors always ask about places like it. Something to think about for future threads might be: What are the qualities of the best cheese-covered enchiladas and crispy beef tacos? What makes the ones served at your favorite places better than the ones served at Matt’s El Rancho?

                              I don’t think my idea of Tex-Mex is right and yours is wrong, nor do I believe that new styles of cuisine are inherently inferior to traditional ones. I assume you’re continuing something from another conversation on this last point, as I didn’t bring it up.

                              As you pointed out, there are different varieties of Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex seasonings are different in West Texas and the Valley than they are in San Antonio. California and New Mexico have their own styles. Here’s one interesting discussion of these issues (http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/o... ).

                              I recognize that most people think, like you, that “classic Tex-Mex” is greasy, cheesy, and carb-laden stuff.

                              However, I have a different understanding of what the term Tex-Mex encompasses because I think that riffing on what was served in Mexico produced more than cheese enchiladas con carne. It’s led to other foods like fajitas, invented by Mexican-Americans living in West Texas; mesquite-grilled lengua (tongue) and cabrito (goat); San-Antonio-style pork tamales; etc. Cabrito done on the grill, for example, is not interior-Mexican food. It’s a Northern Mexican and Tejano Tex-Mex staple, however.

                              In other words, riffing isn’t just the domain of people who produced things like queso con carne. The traditional San-Antonio-style-Tejano pork tamale, for example, riffs on regional Mexican tamales but would be almost unrecognizable to someone from Oaxaca, though now it’s “traditional” here. San-Antonio-style capirotada (bread pudding) uses cheddar cheese—sometimes Velveeta!—not Mexican cheese. Tejanos also use local ingredients and riff on regional-Mexican specialties. In other words, they’re also producing a new kind of cuisine, something like a new kind of regional Mexican food, except that Texas is not part of Mexico. Perhaps there’s a question of degree to all this riffing, but even burritos or enchiladas aren’t Texan inventions ex nihilio. They’re riffing on an original (though there are always contending variations subsumed in the concept of “the original”).

                              I’m not trying to convince you—I’m just trying to explain my terms. Because Tex-Mex means different things to different people, I usually try to clarify how I’m using the term Tex-Mex (as Tejano-style food that includes dishes like those mentioned above) and describe all chow served as specifically as I can. As long as we can understand each other—and other ‘hounds—that’s all that matters.


                              1. re: MPH

                                I love carnitas but who (here) makes them correctly (not steamed)? How about salsa de Arbol? Calabacitas? Enchiladas Verde made with REAL crab? Homade thick corn tortillas?

                                1. re: robotmeister

                                  The calabacitas tacos at El Meson are pretty tasty. Don't know how authentic it is -- I've only had it at El Meson.

                  2. There are a number of fine dishes to be had at El Rancho. The old-fashioned fried chicken tacos are succulent. The guacamole is delicious; it is not tricked up with a score of unnecessary ingrediants. The fried fish is great, a hunk of whitefish perfectly fried and accompanied by the best tartar sauce in Austin. The chile rellenos are near-perfect, napped with a subtly seasoned ranchero sauce, and topped with nuts and raisins. And, the "Matt's Fries" are terrific, fresh potatoes beautifully fried with onions, jalapenos, and the finishing sauce used in a number of good dishes at Matt's. I agree that the tostados are perhaps the best in town, thick and fried in-house, and rivaled only by the unique homeade ones found at the great El Patio.