Carla Meyer

Dining review: Quality, affordable food at El Favorito in Rancho Cordova

I like to think of it as a healthy and necessary respite, stepping away from fine (and not-so-fine) dining, going much more casual, saving plenty of money, but not necessarily lowering our standards for quality cooking.

I've found a place where you can do all that, hidden in plain sight among the many businesses lining Folsom Boulevard in Rancho Cordova.

At El Favorito, you can eat a torta made with very tasty and spicy chorizo on a large, fresh-baked bun. You can get free refills on your mildly sweet and spicy horchata. You can get full plates of tender steak or shrimp or carnitas with Mexican rice and refried beans.

And when you order at the counter, you're apt to get a good look at the framed picture of Jesus hanging on the wall, just above the fire extinguisher and not too far from the ice machine.

During three recent visits, I ordered from throughout the menu and was impressed with both the quality of the ingredients and the consistency of the cooking.

Lalo's in south Sacramento may get more attention from foodies, and Franklin Boulevard certainly has more street cred when it comes to its wealth of quality Mexican fare. But don't overlook El Favorito. It's a closely guarded secret no longer.

They make tortillas in-house. The salsas are very fresh and loaded with flavor and, if you choose wisely, just the right amount of heat for your tastes. Also at the salsa bar you'll encounter pickled vegetables – carrots, peppers and slices of potato – that pack a pleasant wallop of simmering spicy heat.

El Favorito is one of my favorite places for Mexican-style steak at blue-collar prices. With all this talk – pro and con – about the upcoming $175 per-blue-blood farm-to-fork dinner on the Tower Bridge, the price point at El Favorito is geared toward people looking to feed the family without breaking the bank.

Farm to fork? I'm assuming the beef comes from a farm somewhere, though it's probably not organic, local or sustainable. The forks? They're white and plastic.

But after eating a $27 steak that was overcooked and under-flavored for my review last week, and with memories of a $42 pork chop several months back still fresh in my mind, I was absolutely thrilled to devour the steak a la Mexicana at this unassuming joint in Rancho Cordova.

It's a thin-cut marinated steak that was easy to like, tender enough, even with my plastic knife. The rice was good, the beans solid, and the tortillas handmade in-house.

All that for, yes, $9.80 – or about 1/18th of the price of a dinner on that honey-mustard bridge.

An even more exciting – and equally affordable – steak is the steak ranchero. I love this dish because it gives the beef a well- balanced jolt of spicy heat by cooking sliced jalapeños, onions and tomatoes with the thin slices of steak.

This dish is especially good with tortillas, sour cream and guacamole, all combined with rice and beans in amounts that vary according to taste.

The torta mentioned above is a simple Mexican-style sandwich loaded with extras – melted cheese, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce and tomatoes. No, you will not lose weight eating a sandwich like this for lunch.

The meat options for tortas are plentiful. Less adventurous eaters can choose marinated beef, grilled chicken or shredded pork. Those looking for more flavor and spice can opt for chili verde or al pastor (barbecued pork), which are both done very well here. And for that authentic experience, you can delve into more traditional options like chorizo, tripe, lengua (tongue) or buche (pork stomach).

I went with the chorizo – deep-red, tender and loaded with flavor – and loved it on the torta, which is large enough to share. I also had the lengua and was impressed with how tender and mildly flavored their version of beef tongue is.

One night, seated at a table within reaching distance of the salsa bar and with a clear view of Jesus, I ordered a plate of "regular" nachos with meat ($5.10), which is more than plenty for two. These nachos were excellent – and an obvious bargain.

With the quesadillas, the fresh tortillas stand out, available in flour or corn (the corn tends to have more flavor). Quesadillas are one of those ultimate working-folks snacks, sort of the Mexican version of the turkey sandwich on Wonder Bread – press the tortillas under heat, melt some cheese, pack some meat and you're there.

The quesadillas here are solid – and they start at $2.60.

Burritos in the United States are a complicated issue, mostly because there is an arms race with American Mexican eateries with regard to how big they can be. For a while, I had taken to weighing the burritos on my digital scale (the largest was 1 pound, 14 ounces at La Garnacha).

The burritos at El Favorito are not on steroids, but the jumbo burrito with meat, rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream and salsa easily tops a pound – and costs just $6.45. For burritos, I prefer simpler. The $5.10 regular is ample and tasty, with your choice of meat, beans, rice and salsa. My favorite was the carnitas, in which the mild shredded pork offers a pleasing meaty texture and the flavor boost comes from the other elements wrapped inside the tortilla.

I'm also a fan of the al pastor burrito, in which the pork is heavily sauced and boasts more dynamic flavor, though it tends to dominate the beans and rice.

While I spent most of my visits exploring how well El Favorito cooks its meats, I was also impressed with the shrimp fajitas, both for how tender and plentiful the shrimp was and for the display of robust cooking, with ample amounts of perfectly prepared bell peppers, tomatoes and onions.

It's one of the best things on the menu and it better be – at $10.80, it's the most expensive.

El Favorito Taqueria Cocina Mexicana

10427 Folsom Blvd., Rancho Cordova

(916) 362-3340

Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Beverage options: Soft drinks, beer.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Noise level: Moderate, including TV.

Overall 3 stars (out of 4 stars)

This modest taqueria has plenty of appealing traits, especially the good cooking, great prices and friendly employees. To get a sense of the true spirit of a taqueria and how it appeals to working-class families, this is a solid choice.

Food 3 1/2 stars

The quality and consistency of the cooking is impressive. You won't find avant garde touches or creative flourishes, but that's not what this place is about. Recommended dishes include the chorizo torta, steak a la Mexicana, steak ranchero and shrimp fajitas.

Service 3 stars

You order at the counter and they bring the food to your table. Very friendly.

Ambiance 2 stars

The décor is basic – a large, open dining room. It wasn't crowded during our visits, but it deserves to be. This category could improve with more personal and meaningful decorating touches without losing that blue-collar vibe.

Value 4 stars

Sacramento has plenty of variety, including the new push for farm-to-fork supremacy. That's great. But so is this – quality and care with the cooking and ingredients, along with excellent prices that appeal to everyone.

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.