The cactus tacos with cheese and cilantro from Taqueria Downtown (236 Grove St.) are reliably good. Tacoria (24-26 Erie St.) can be inconsistent, but their fried avocado and brussels sprout tacos are creative and tasty. Unpretentious, welcoming Sol Azteca (328 Montgomery St.) cooks up some satisfying grilled veggie tacos. Then there’s Taco Drive (195 Newark Ave.) on one of the city’s most trafficked corners. Their vegan mushroom tacos with sweet peppers and black beans are delicious. Surely the Downtown doesn’t need any more vegetarian taco options than that, right?
Well, of course we do. We’re a growing city, but we still haven’t achieved taco saturation — especially for those who love Mexican food but want plants for dinner. El Ranchero Taqueria (382 2nd St.) in the Italian Village opened in 2021 with a wide wallful of options for hungry diners. Yet as is the case at nearly every Mexican restaurant in every city, most of those dishes are designed for meat eaters. Birria, al pastor, carnitas, fajitas, campechana, chorizo: so many popular methods of consuming animals. Is there a path to Mexican deliciousness somewhere on that massive green-white-and-red menu?
Why we’re interested: I don’t put too much stock in online ratings and numerical scales, but some numbers are hard to ignore. After 251 Google reviews, El Ranchero has an average rating of 4.9 stars out of 5. Online dominance like that is almost impossible to maintain: even Michelin-starred restaurants rarely average higher than four and a half stars. Diners love to nitpick and puncture hyperbole. People get cranky and drop Internet stinkbombs on the finest restaurants and drag down the score.
Closer inspection of El Ranchero’s online reviews (which are also ecstatic on Yelp, that den of digital vipers) reveal that nobody ever complains about the food. Those who aren’t happy with the place have an axe to grind, or they felt the service was too slow, or they’re just saboteurs. Critics who have visited concur with the consensus. Jeremy Schneider of NJ dot com acknowledged Taqueria Downtown as the city’s best-loved taco spot, but wrote that El Ranchero was coming for the crown. He listed the Taqueria among the best restaurants in town, alongside fancier places where a dinner will cost you two or three times as much. In a later article, Schneider and critic Lauren Musni declared the El Ranchero burrito the supreme bomb in the state.
Is it vegetarian friendly?: Of course, the burrito they loved best was stuffed with lamb birria. Schneider also called the al pastor chilaquiles his favorite Jersey City breakfast. Those online reviews raved about the carnitas and chicken enchiladas. Of the sixteen(!) taco options on the big menu, fourteen will deliver meat to your mouth. El Ranchero will happily make bean-centric versions of their carnivorous options. But they’re expecting most visitors to choose beef, pork, poultry, or fish. Your vegetarian order might be accompanied by a nagging feeling that you’re missing the point of this restaurant — and backstreet taquerias in general.
There’s always that purgatorial choice that has been filling up non-meat-eaters at corner Mexican restaurants from time immemorial: guacamole and chips. If you’re like me, though, you’ll pick something else. Mashing up an avocado can be nice; nicer still are slices of fresh avocado that you can spritz your own lime on. Likewise, tortilla chips are the least interesting way to encounter masa. The aromatic, delicate, earthy flavor of corn dough — one of the world’s most subtle and delicious tastes — gets sizzled into oblivion. For what it’s worth, the guacamole and chips at El Ranchero compare well to those at any other taqueria in town. But you don’t want to fill up on that stuff. You’re going to miss out on what you really want.
For instance, there’s this option, which has gotten more popular in the States since eaters here discovered that it’s basically a Mexican analogue for disco fries. When done properly, chilaquiles put nachos to shame: the pieces of tortilla are held in a rough sort of balance with the rajas, the cotija, the tomatoes, the beans, and the cream. These are certainly the best chilaquiles I’ve had in Hudson County, but the bed of totopos is still nearly overwhelmed by the toppings. I cannot imagine the benefit of adding meat to this dish, though add it you are certainly encouraged by the menu to do.
These four miracles on a plate are, ironically, proof that vegetarians are an afterthought at El Ranchero — though any resentment is likely to melt away once you take a bite. This is one of the few choices on the vast menu designed specifically for vegetable eaters, and they’re fantastic in their simplicity and balance. The cooks do not feel the need to add cheese or beans or turbo-charge it with anything particularly hot: it’s just squash, pepper, herbs, a little chopped onion, and a slice of avocado. Everything is fresh and impeccably cooked, and it’s arranged in a double-tortilla as pliable and yielding as a wonton wrapper. It takes a practiced hand to make a vegetable taco that hangs together as you bite into it. But they’ve weighted everything judiciously and steamed the tortillas just enough to liven them up and bring forth the sweet flavor of the dough. These tacos prove that the cooks at El Ranchero understand calabaza as well as they understand carnitas. The Taco Drive mushroom tacos are flashier and more pungent, but the El Ranchero vegetable tacos are, nevertheless, my favorite in New Jersey, and they vie with the sour cherry-kale tacos at ABC Cocina and the fungi-epazote amalgamation at Claro in Brooklyn for my favorite in the metropolitan area. And ABC Cocina and Claro are far more expensive.
You can get these with bistec, chorizo, chicken, or carne asada, or you can do as I do and ask them for no meat at all. That choice won’t be on the menu, but it’s very much available, and you’re unlikely to experience any FOMO when you start eating these. They come loaded with seasoned black beans, shaved iceberg lettuce and onion, a half moon slice of tomato and some slivers of avocado, and a very generous dusting of cotija. You’ll have the salsas rojo y verde at your disposal if you need to douse them with additional flavor; both sauces are yummy, but they aren’t strictly necessary. Sopes can be difficult to find at area Mexican spots because cooks, not unreasonably, consider them superfluous if tostadas are also on the menu. But the sopes shells are made from a thicker, softer layer of masa and they’re curved at the edges to create a little life raft for the toppings. This gives every bite a chewy texture that tostadas, with their bright snappiness, can’t approximate. It also guarantees the eater more masa flavor, and more masa flavor is always welcome.
Two generously stuffed pouches of cheese, cream, and lettuce, cooked to an amber gloss and accompanied by a dipping sauce. Absolutely nothing not to like.
El Ranchero does not skimp on cheese. The vegetarian flautas wrap four rectangular bars of queso — not all that dissimilar to mozzarella sticks — in crunchy tortilla cylinders. These cheese tubes are crowned by shaved lettuce, tomato slices, and wedges of avocado and presented alongside achiote-orange rice and black beans. Mixing it all up is rewarding to do but tricky to manage because of the different textures: crumbly tortilla, feathery rice, juicy tomato, and cheese that holds its form better than you’d suppose it would in a dish served hot. It’s here that I should mention that the kitchen’s choice of ingredients is impressively sharp-eyed. They’ll never slip you a lackluster tomato or a mushy, browned avocado, or overdo the rice, or stick you with a stale tortilla. The execution at this restaurant surpasses that of many of this town’s fine dining establishments. One of my guests at El Ranchero Taqueria tried the seafood tacos and was surprised that a place so affordable and unpretentious would serve fish so fresh. I’d already been a few times. I was not surprised.
These are presented just as the flautas are: on a flat plate, smothered in cotija, cream, and shaved greens, and kissing up to beans and rice. The difference is the sauce, which is liberally applied, and which will douse the sides even if you don’t want it to (you’ll want it to). You’ll have your pick of green or red sauce; the red is complex and smoky and has overtones of a traditional molé, but the acidity of the tart green one matches the cheese filling perfectly. Flip a coin. I prefer this to the flautas platter because of the pliability of the ingredients, but if you’re more inclined to keep your flavors discrete, the flautas are the way to go.
Should you order the chile and queso tamal, you won’t find any animal matter inside that packet of masa. Don’t be fooled: this is not a vegetarian dish. El Ranchero Taqueria keeps with Mexican tradition by mixing lard into the corn dough. I mention this for two reasons. First, this tamale is excellent — a fluffy, savory union of corn and steam. If you’re at El Ranchero and you’re okay with cutting a corner, you might want to do it like this. Second, it’s very tough to find a vegetarian tamale in the metropolitan area. La Brujeria (590 Grand St.) makes one, and that’s about it. Vegetarian tamales might run against custom, but they’re lighter and sweeter than their lard-made cousins, and they are, I believe, a truer expression of the flavor of corn. And yes, I am trying to goad El Ranchero into making one, because I’m confident they’d do it beautifully. A well-turned tamal is one of earth’s great culinary treats. Vegetarians deserve to unwrap that banana leaf with confidence.
The vibe: Tables are set with funky-looking placemats. The sodas are in a cooler behind the service station. Mexican flags hang from the ceiling. The logo features a mustachioed man on a burro; he holds a knife and fork and idles by a cactus. Of all the taquerias in Downtown Jersey City, this is the one that looks and feels like it could be in the Mission or in Austin’s Bouldin Creek — right down to the neighborhood kids who pop in for quick bites and takeout orders. The cooking is serious, but everything else is relaxed. There are milkshakes on the menu (though I’ve never seen anyone get one), three varieties of churros for dessert, and a plantain that I’ve always been too full to get. One day. Oh, and it’s worth noting that El Ranchero Taqueria sets the scene with loud regional Mexican and norteño-sax music. On visits, I’ve heard Mon Laferte, Peso Pluma, Los Angeles Azules, and other masters of South of the Border pop. This is the sort of thing that delights me, but if you’re more in the mood for a quiet evening out, you might try to get a table in the back.
The verdict: El Ranchero is a local legend in the making. They’ve whipped up a tasty combination of affordability, personality, and culinary skill, and that’s a recipe for sustained popularity and success. They deserve the accolades they’ve gotten, and I’ve got a feeling there are many more to come. Whether it’s a good option for vegetarians is a separate question. Herbivores should know that they’ll be surrounded by people who are having ecstatic experiences with birria, carnitas, and al pastor. If you’re the kind of diner who has a hard time seeing others celebrate the consumption of meat, this is probably not the place for you. Less squeamish vegetarians might express frustration that a kitchen capable of a dish as elemental as the El Ranchero vegetable taco should be reluctant to aggressively foreground plants in its other dishes. What can we say?; even if it’s uncommonly good and increasingly hyped, it’s a traditional taqueria at heart. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
(El Rancho Taqueria is open from 8 a.m. until 8:45 p.m. on every day except Monday. Expect to pay between ten and thirteen dollars for most menu items. Four excellent veggie tacos cost eleven bucks. Tamales are three dollars each.)