After a large, delicately spicy plate of egg, beans, chilis and ranchero sauce, 100 miles on the road is not quite enough to get one’s hunger back up.
And alas, upon filling up a second time and making another 80ish mile trek, Round Three starts to sound like torture. We began this journey in the morning and now we need naps more than we need a third course of silky white protein awash in earthy, succulent tomato-based sauce.
Yet, we soldier on, stomachs distended, belching sautéed onion, because we have been tasked with finding exceptional huevos rancheros.
And find them we will. This is a simple dish, easy to get right and easy to screw up. Consisting mostly of flat things, huevos rancheros sits low on the plate, small-seeming, snack-like. In stomach, the deception is made clear. This is farm food — traditionally a mid-morning meal for those returning from field or pasture. It fills you up, and it does so cheaply.
It’s Mexico’s version of the two- (or three-) egg breakfast, meaning the banana-shaped nation has assembled all its staples onto one plate.
Huevos rancheros is the sort of dish throwdowns were created for. The constituent parts are fairly regular wherever you go, making for an apples-to-apples comparison, yet the dish allows for a degree of virtuosity of preparation. Exceptional huevos rancheros will not only have a creative twist; they will also be cooked to perfection.
In judging this simple dish, then, we kept the criteria as simple as the meal. We would award up to:
Huevos rancheros is a dish near to my family. The Baumgarten clan has few great traditions, but one of them is this: On rare returns to our ancestral home (a scab of earth known as California’s San Joaquin Delta), we get breakfast at a little dive in Stockton called Mi Ranchito. My little ranch. Around our table is always three, four, five orders of huevos rancheros.And so, when my brother, Shane, and I set out in search of the goods around here, we knew we’d be judging not simply on taste and execution, but inevitably on nostalgia.
TORO VIEJO — 56%
One of four locations. We tried the Hayden spot. Housed in a slightly mod building on Government Way, everything about Toro Viejo oozes “family Mexican.” The salsa tastes like it, the decor looks like it, the satellite radio tuned to accordion-heavy quasi-Mexi-pop music sounds like it.
As one might expect, these were the least surprising huevos of the day. The eggs were cooked well enough, but the sauce was bland, the beans were cold and the rice seemed day-old.
We went at a weird time (2 pm on a Saturday), so we’re willing to overlook how bad the rice was, but even with that, nothing stood out as exceptional or even particularly good here. 9075 N. Government Way, Hayden, Idaho
MARIO’S — 78%
You’ll recognize the Mario of Mario’s from behind the sneeze guard at the downtown De Leon (may she rest in peace). He was Sergio DeLeon’s consigliere of burrito-making. He has now taken his show two hours (depending on conditions) north, to the near-bordertown of Bonner’s Ferry. It’s a trek, but there’s something that just feels American about eating Mexican food in a log cabin within spitting distance of Canada.
Mario serves mean huevos.
The eggs are cooked perfectly over-easy, the yolk mixing with the ranchero sauce and the fat from the beans to create silken, south-of-the-border heaven. The rice was the best we had, but the refried beans were just average. The sauce was very good, but scant. If you go, you’ll want to let them know you like your huevos swimming, not wading, in ranchero sauce.
Also unique: If you’re looking for some extra cumin and cholesterol, get them with chorizo beans. Shane gave me one small forkful and then started slapping my hands away. 6536 Main St., Bonners Ferry, Idaho
LA PRESA — 80%
The name means “The Dam,” and, lo, the Airway Heights location sports a sign of a macaw overlooking what may as well be the Grand Coulee. Inside is an equally idiosyncratic vibe. Open with booths along only one wall, La Presa feels like a cantina, perhaps because their margarita glasses are the restaurant’s focal point and come in sizes up to 64 ounces (making them more chalice or trough than glass).
La Presa’s tortillas had a bit of give. A bit thicker than the rest, they verged on spongy in a way that felt substantive. Despite being held back by mediocre rice and beans that didn’t inspire lust, theirs were very good huevos with some nice touches and we liked the addition of Mexican coleslaw as a garnish. 13308 Sunset Highway, Airway Heights, Wash.
ABELARDO’S — 83%
In the vein of Atilano’s and the brick-and-mortar Tacos Tumbras locations, Abelardo’s does fast mex in an old drive-through. It bears all the hallmarks of this sub-genre: The food is inexpensive, the portions are large, and you can pretty much be assured that, whenever you go, it’ll be open.
There was a bit of schizophrenia on order. Abelardo’s had the best beans, but no rice. The best sauce by a mile, and yet they cooked the eggs hard. We didn’t miss the rice at all, but the hard-fried eggs became an issue, as the rest of the places served up runny yellow gold.
The sauce covered the spread, but Shane and I both couldn’t help thinking that, if we’d specified sunny-side-up, this would have been our one truly transcendent huevos experience. 11519 E. Sprague Ave., Spokane Valley
The verdict is this: Spokane’s outlying areas sport some solid huevos, and three of the four places were within spitting distance of victory. If Mario’s gives us a bit more ranchero sauce or if La Presa’s rice was a little fresher and more flavorful, this could have been a different story.
In the end, though, it was Abelardo’s game to lose, and even with the over-cooking of the eggs, their abundance of rich, spicy sauce and perfectly cooked beans elevated them, ever so slightly, above the pack.