In the case of Mi Rancho Mexican Grill, where the bendy chips and bland salsa save appetites, the answer is No. 52 -- cordorniz, or quail. A common game bird in Mexico, quail is a rare destination dish in Latino restaurants, and I've certainly never witnessed it prepared with such nobility. The meaty double breast and two leg/thigh parts that arrive hissing on a black iron skillet come from the sort of plump, dusky-feathered bird you spot skittering around the fields of South Dakota. Punished lovingly with black pepper, and as moist as brined turkey, the sputtering meat alights on a bed of still-caramelizing onions and warm limes. After forking into the first irresistible bites, you eat the lime-sluiced bird as tacos, by using a fajita-like setup of soft corn tortillas, guacamole and pico de gallo.
(Note: This preparation is only fajita-like. Ordinary fajitas are consistently decent at awful restaurants, disappointing at good ones and boring everywhere. There's nothing boring about Mi Rancho's quail.)
Chowhounds expend tons of air complaining about the sorry quality of Mexican restaurants in the New Orleans area. I've had my own moments, but I realized some time ago that I could wear out a lung on the topic, or I could damn my own litmus tests and embark on a more realistic search -- one for spectacular Mexican dishes rather than spectacular Mexican restaurants. This philosophy is similar, by the way, to New Orleanians' inbred approach to mom-n-pop neighborhood restaurants, where there are always a number of terrible dishes everyone agrees to ignore.
You don't get to No. 52 on Mi Rancho's menu of popular Mexican foods without an open mind and some luck. Let the following paragraphs be a practical guide -- they will lead curious diners to some truly noteworthy food finds and help steer clear of the duds.
Mi Rancho's variable selection of cold aguas frescas might include a thin, spiced horchata made milky with ground rice, or sour-sweet tamarind water containing bits of the fruit's pulp. Margaritas smooth as polished stone come in two sizes; the larger could pass for a fish bowl.
The unfortunate queso fundido appetizer (a bubbling, cheesy casserole) requires eating more of the stale chips, and it cools into an impenetrable dairy raft within three minutes. Order the totopos instead, which are like little nacho canapes. Straightforward flautas -- rolled and fried corn tortilla flutes filled with mashed potatoes -- and a cold, soup-like shrimp cocktail are also worth considering.
The futility of such a system in New Orleans already established, my litmus test for Mexican restaurants in other places is the dark, husky, handsome sauce called mole (and pronounced moh-lay). Proprietor Rosalia Pina's fragrant, almond-skin-brown mole would pass such a test in one bite, its initial bitterness quickly smoothed over by the rich, overlapping flavors of smoke, fruit, earth and heat that evolve from pulverized chiles, nuts, chocolate, onions and tomatoes, among other mysterious ingredients. Coarse-textured and abundant, the mole is served over drumsticks, yet it's just as exhilarating by the spoonful. Lesser Mexican cooks get their mole from a jar, and so before ordering it for the first time at Mi Rancho, I asked the waitress if it was made on the premises. "You insult me," she said, aghast. My deepest apologies.
Soft tacos are mostly safe here. Of the four I tried, three were nearly indiscernible (tacos al pastor, tacos estilo Rancho and tacos de bistec), containing the pleasant composition of salty, charred or roasted meat offset by sharp raw onion, breathtaking cilantro and lime. A barbacoa taco tasted a little too animal. Tamales are touch-and-go, the beef ones bone-dry and the super-moist cheese variety filled with a complementary duo of creamy cheese and hot jalapenos.
The Huasteca Potosina is Mi Rancho's happy answer to a meat-and-starch meal: well-done but juicy skirt steak served with fatty refried beans, fluffed orange rice and three cheese quesadillas brushed with tangy green salsa. Order the camarones a la diabla (overcooked shrimp in tomato-chipotle sauce) only for the pleasant fire that still blazes in the belly two days later. Surrounded by paddle cacti, Mi Rancho's stand-alone building is a heartening vision at the fore of a drab shopping center parking lot. The interior is a corresponding mix of utility and cheer. Dyed burlap tablecloths match the warm sienna walls, and wooden blinds soften the headlights beaming from Lapalco Boulevard. The service is maternal, the lively music sounds like a few shots of tequila and, oh, for those who mind, the restrooms sparkle.