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Kevin Yee

Special Report - El Rancho del Zocalo opens

Rancho del Zocalo
Write up by Kevin Yee, photos by Kevin Yee, David Lane & Al Lutz

Disneyland has soft-opened (their term for testing out a new location, without announcing that it's officially up and running) the replacement for the popular Mexican restaurant in Frontierland.

Rancho del Zocalo
Mural outside the restaurant entrance

Named Rancho del Zocalo (pronounced Zo-cuh-low, usually said rather fast all together), the restaurant combines the best of two Yester-restaurants (or Yesteraunts, as I like to call them). Rancho replaces Casa Mexicana and the Big Thunder Barbecue, combining elements from both of their menus. Rancho is situated on the former home of Casa Mexicana, but it's a much larger restaurant than Casa ever was, since it expands into a previously-unused backstage area and part of the Carnation Plaza Gardens restaurant that closed a few years ago, facing the castle.

The new restaurant is "Scramble-style" service, meaning it's like a food court. You decide what *kind* of food you want and head to that window, then everyone adjourns to the same set of cashiers to pay and head out into the dining areas.

(While I'm on the subject, be aware there are two sets of cashiers - one by the entrance, where it is quite visible, and one hidden by the desserts. Both lead out into the same dining areas.)

Rancho Cashiers
The more visible set of cashiers, next to the cut-glass doors of the main entrance.

The two basic windows are for Mexican and BBQ foods, exactly what you'd expect from a restaurant with this history.

Menu Items

Lunch Prices
(Dinner prices slightly higher - usually by a dollar)

Comidas Mexicana
El Burrito Grande - $8.99
Quesadilla Especial - $8.49
Tacos del Mar - $7.99
Tacos California - $7.99
Tostado del Rancho - $9.99
Mousekemeals - $4.99 (Cheese Quesadilla or Bean & Cheese Burrito)

Hacienda Barbecue
Smoked St. Louis Ribs - $13.99
Ribs & Chicken Platter - $11.99
BBQ Chicken - $10.99
Chili Vasquez - $6.99

Santiago Sandwiches
Rancho Barbecues Beef - $8.99
Chicken Verdugo - $8.99
Chicken Fried Steak - $9.99

Desserts / Drinks
Peach Cobbler
Fudge Brownie
Chocolate Bread Pudding
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Horchata
Chocolate or Strawberry Milk

As you can see, the menu really does combine the best of both the BBQ and the previous Casa Mexicana restaurants.

Just how are these dishes?

On the whole, really quite excellent. I didn't eat everything, mind you - I'm not quite that hungry, thank you very much. Anecdotally, here's what I've heard:

1. They are still working out the operational kinks, so that the BBQ side of the restaurant features dishes that are supposedly served less hot than they should be. Be not concerned about raw food - the meat is smoked enough to be cooked no matter what. Still, I took a pass on that.


The BBQ side of the restaurant

2. The vast majority of these entrees are quite large, so you are certain to be filled up.

3. Almost everyone I talked to enjoyed their food, so expect some really good quality.

Now, a caveat. *I* didn't like my food. So I'm going to treat you to the story:

Armed with the knowledge that the BBQ foods might be a bit pinkish, I restricted myself to Mexican entrees. Quesadillas sounded good, and I didn't realize I'd have to choose between chicken or beef, so I just went up to the Mexican window.

There are temporary ropes up at the Mexican window, creating in essence three lines. A greeter just inside the main door is supposed to capture every guest and direct them to the appropriate line (apparently the BBQ side doesn't much matter, but the Mexican side does). Turns out the quesadillas are to ordered on the right-hand side, the burritos in the middle, and the tostadas on the left.

It was a mess.

People, being tourists and otherwise just homo-sapiens, lined up in every which way. Sometimes there were three lines, sometimes just one. I know that the nature of the line kept changing because I was stuck there for so long!

I'd gone to the right-most side to order my quesadillas, but the ignorance of other Guests created enormous confusion. People ordered from the wrong line, and sometimes they were asked to go to the proper side (displacing those of us in the right spot already) and then sometimes they were helped right where they were (meaning they were served ahead of others, and plates had to be handed around behind the counter in a most counter-productive way. Ignore that pun, please). 

To make matters worse, there is no apparent "contact" person at each point in the counter, so I stood there for several minutes while others were helped around me. I suspect they thought I had been helped and was waiting for my food already, when in fact I hadn't been asked about ordering. Trust me, many guests do not like to impose themselves to order food, and they will often be passed up by guests who have no trouble being assertive (*cough* RUDE *cough*).

In no way do I blame the Cast Members. They were doing their best, and it was a new system. I forgive the restaurant because things are so new. This is a soft-open, after all, designed to spot problems like this. Even better, there is a simple fix:

Create signs above the three lines at the Mexican window.

Currently, there is just one sign for the whole Mexican menu, and it hangs above the middle line. This cannot last. The greeter does what she / he can to organize people into the proper lines, but either they don't listen or he/she can't get to all of them, because it was a mess. It cannot be all that hard to get signs for "Quesadillas", "Burritos", and "Tostadas." And it would reduce so much confusion, increase through- put, make guests happier, and raise profit margins. You may have that idea for free, Disneyland!

But I was talking about my food. I got quesadillas, discovered I had a choice, and went for chicken. Once I ordered, I got the food fast enough.

The problem was the food itself. Spanish rice had basically no flavor. The refried beans were OK. The big problem was the chicken. It was a mixture of white and dark meat - something they didn't advertise. I resented that, because dark meat sometimes gives rise to a sickening kind of poultry odor that my stomach really dislikes. After trying gamely to eat it, I gave in and did something I've never done before, at any restaurant in any theme park: I went to find the manager.

The manager (assistant manager?) Joe confirmed the white / dark meat mixture for me. He was gracious in the extreme and offered me any entree as compensation. I felt bad and really wanted to restrict myself to something cheaper - I'd eaten one-fifth of the quesadilla already, after all. 

He went that extra step and insisted I take anything, even if more expensive. Even better: he tried to refund my money, on top of the replacement dish.

Joe: we love you.

I didn't take Joe up on the offer. I got the chili, which is cheaper, and refused to take a refund. The chili, I'm happy to report, is great. Very filling too. So filling, in fact, that my girlfriend (who had gotten it also) offered me the rest of hers when I got back with mine. Sigh - should have taken that refund and gotten nothing.

The atmosphere is very much something to write home about. In short, they really lavished attention on this new location. There are dozens of little touches scattered about: fireplaces with real fire, period-piece lanterns designed to evoke the Zorro- esque epoch, elaborate wooden arch walkways, even themed tables and chairs.

Rancho del Zocalo
Without doubt, there was real attention paid to theming inside.

Rancho del Zocalo
The main walkway into the restaurant, seen looking out at Frontierland. You can also enter the restaurant via wooden tunnel from the Plaza Gardens near the Castle.

The best touches, though, are the ones which point to Disneyland's history. As always, the Imagineers went out of their way to preserve and commemorate Disneyland's past by including a few touches here and there. What am I referring to? Three big things.

First, the building closest to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was preserved from destruction, though it might have proven easier on the architects to remove it and start over. Why bother? Because this corner of the location is one of the oldest parts of Disneyland: an original structure that dates back to the beginning in 1955.

In the park's early years, this little structure was "Mineral Hall," a rock and mineral store that cleverly used blacklight to illuminate the wares and make them more inviting. Casa Mexicana, when it moved in next door, converted Mineral Hall to office space but kept it around. In fact, one of the window panes proclaimed this structure to be Mineral Hall, though it was just backstage office space. Now, "Mineral Hall" (minus that window pane) is part of Rancho del Zocalo; it is the second and harder-to-spot cashier station and exit onto the patio.

Rancho del Zocalo
The former Mineral Hall building

The second tribute is more obvious. The restaurant immediately preceding Rancho was called Casa Mexicana, itself an update of "Casa di Fritos," which dates back to a sponsorship by Fritos chips. Rancho may not sport the "Casa" title in its name, but it pays tribute via a small sign above the former Casa Mexicana main entrance:

Rancho del Zocalo
Casa Mexicana becomes "mi casa" to us all.

Less obviously, though equally relevant, are the murals which graced the walls of Casa Mexicana's interior. These had to be destroyed to create the food court style service, but replacements can be found inside Rancho:

Rancho del Zocalo
Interior murals that evoke Casa Mexicana, in style as well as their very presence.

Finally, the location's general theme, that of a nebulous sort of Zorro-era (glance again at the mural shown at the top of this webpage), honors not just Disney's modern efforts to create a new Zorro film franchise but actually part of Disneyland's history itself.

In 1955, the big Western heroes were Davy Crockett and Zorro, so the circular plaza in the center of Frontierland was named "El Zocalo" to fit with the more Southwestern feel of Zorro. Recently, "El Zocalo" was retrofitted with a new layout and a stage, so the circular plaza is no longer there in its original form. Now you know why "Rancho del Zocalo" goes all the way back to Disneyland's beginnings to find a theme, and its name.


 

 

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