Ayala family serves authentic Mexican dishes
Like numerous Mexican restaurants across the Mid-South, Mi Ranchito proves to be a true family affair.
The Watertown eatery, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Friday, was a case of love at first sight. Juan and Elena Ayala explored the southeastern Wilson County village in 2006 and knew this was the place where they wanted to fulfill their dream.
"My parents used to work at La Loma in Lebanon. My dad was manager and mom a server," said their daughter, Maria Perez. "They drove to work every day from Madison to Lebanon. Jay Chesley [a former Watertown resident] was one of their customers at La Loma, and he had spoken to them about Watertown.
"They like to look around, and so one day during a two-hour break, they drove here. That's how they came to find Watertown."
Recalled Elena, "The people were very nice, friendly."
Juan said, "I really liked it. It was quiet."
Juan, who has a partner in the business, Samuel Onaté, named it Mi Ranchito because, he says, "Watertown is a little town, like a little ranch."
The couple has been married 35 years and hail from San Jose de la Paz, Jalisco, Mexico, where he grew up in town and she in the country.
Just as the two flipped over the Watertown square, their hearts began racing when they first spied one another as teenagers on their hometown plaza.
Shared Elena, "It was love at first sight. I said to myself, 'This one's mine.'"
Juan and Elena married in Mexico when they were 17 and 16, respectively.
Mi Ranchito Mexican Restaurant
Mi Ranchito Mexican Restaurant celebrates its 10th anniversary in Watertown on Friday. The family-operated restaurant offers authentic Mexican cuisine. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Address: 115 East Main St. Phone: (615) 237-0400.
A true family business
Today, four of their five children lend a hand in making their 99-seat restaurant a popular eating establishment for those who want a taste of authentic Mexican food or a blend of Tex-Mex dishes.
Son Miguel is the main cook. Mom Elena and daughter Maria are servers. Son Jose also cooks. Daughter Juana Barajas fills in as a server and cook, and her husband, Jose, also cooks. Dad Juan is manager and handles the bookkeeping. And Maria's son Toby, 14, is dishwasher and busboy.
Oldest son, Humberto, operates his own restaurant in Newton, Mississippi.
Mr. Ayala came to the United States in 1980 and began learning his craft as a cook at a restaurant in Marietta, Georgia. He returned two years later to his native country to marry Elena. In 1990, he came back to the U.S., and Elena followed in 1993. The two are permanent residents of the U.S., and four of their children are American citizens.
Maria said, "My dad always wanted his own restaurant. He and a brother owned one in Georgia.
He was out of it for a while working other jobs, and he realized to own your own business can be much better than working for somebody else."
Said daughter Juana, "Plus, he had five children, so we could all pitch in and help."
Ingredients for a successful business
Mr. Ayala said he initially chose a career in the restaurant business because "when I first came to the United States, I didn't speak English at all, and I needed a job that didn't require me to know English to be able to work. I started out as a dishwasher and worked my way up to a cook, a manager and then later decided to open up my own restaurant.
"I really am grateful that the people from Watertown are very friendly and support me the way that they do. We have been opened for 10 years and that to me is a very pleasant way of letting me know that they support me and my family's business."
As for the key ingredients in succeeding in such a competitive field, he said, "In order for everything to begin well, you have to hire employees that really want to work, and I have to have good communication with them in order for them to do things the way I want them done and for all my employees to respect each other so they can work as a team. Another factor would be the way I treat my customers and giving them the opportunity to give me feedback on the service and our food prepared by our cooks."
Originally opening in a spot on the northeast corner of square, six years ago Mi Ranchito relocated to the former Watertown Bank building on East Main Street barely off the square.
Said Mr. Ayala, "We had been leasing the building on the corner of square. It was an older building. This one had been for sale, and we found it was very spacious."
The move has been a good one. Mr. Ayala, a jack of all trades, and son Miguel did most of the remodeling. Their diner boasts 14 turquoise-and-teal-colored booths and several tables. It also has a party room for groups that wish to make a reservation.
Hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, and 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
A family of four can enjoy a complete meal here for $40 to $50, while the lunch menu, served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., offers a wide variety of plates from $4.75 to $7.25.
Owners dish on dishes
Mr. Ayala and Mr. Onaté brainstormed to create the dishes and then asked for input from the family.
Said Maria, "If you want to go authentic, I recommend Mexican tacos the way we make them at home, with choice of meat, cilantro and onions."
For an appetizer she suggests guacamole al gusto.
Their most popular dish seems to be gringa (grilled chicken and rice with melted cheese).
Maria also recommends chile Colorado (grilled steak with refried beans and rice) and said, "What makes this dish popular is the ranchero sauce, which is one of my dad's recipes."
She also touts the carnitas, describing it as "big chunks of Boston butt, and the way it's cooked, it just falls apart."
The menu features salads, fajitas, steak, seafood, chicken and vegetarian dishes as well 14 burrito plates and six types of quesadillas. The quesadilla fajitas comes with a 10-inch tortilla.
Among the family's home recipes are the carne asada Mexicana (grilled steak with grilled cactus, onions, rice and whole pinto beans) and molcajete, which combines tender strips of steak, chicken, shrimp, chorizo (Mexican sausage) with onions, bell pepper, Mexican cactus and cheese.
Heat of the kitchen
Top chef Miguel often faces frenzied moments in the kitchen when a flurry of orders come rolling in one behind the other. That's when he feels the heat.
"It gets very nerve-wracking when we get swamped with food orders, but as long as we have a fully-staffed kitchen, it makes it easier to not feel overwhelmed because we assign everyone a certain task so that everyone works together and everything flows well even under so much pressure," said Miguel, who learned from a master.
"My father taught me how to cook and taught me that we as cooks play a major part in having our customers coming back by the way we prepare our salsas from scratch and prepare everything fresh daily, and the better quality we give each of our customers, they will be able to go to other restaurants and compare the difference of our food versus theirs. Pretty much saying that no matter how simple the meal is, you can still ruin it if you don't do things right and not slacking and taking shortcuts on our quality and presentation."
Locals are regulars
Watertown's Lynna and Mark Nix and their three daughters feast at Mi Ranchito at least once a week. Lynna described the restaurant, saying, "It's very relaxed and friendly. Usually they know what we will order before we order it. It's good food."
She favors the chicken fajitas and said her girls go for the gringa or fajitas.
Lisa Baldwin, who lives near Watertown, said. "My family eats here about twice a month, and we all have our favorites. I like the chilaquiles, and my husband likes their homemade tomatillo salsa."
As for the head cook's favorite choices between Mexican cuisine and American, he said, "My favorite meal that I prepare is called Miguel Special, which consists of all the meats like steak, chicken, shrimp, chorizo and carnitas, which is pork, and it's served with rice and refried beans. My favorite American food would be Southern cooking like meat loaf and cornbread, mashed potatoes and turnip greens."
Former bank history
Maria shared a bit of background on Mexican dishes served in American restaurants, saying, "There was a Mexican restaurant, Los Toros, which opened in 1972, in Chamblee, Georgia, where they started with Mexican dishes but more like Tex-Mex. That is where a lot of Mexican restaurants got their recipes for kids and foods that Americans liked to eat."
The Ayala family eats a lot of their own meals here, but Maria noted, "We can get burnt out so we have burgers and fries on the menu."
Mi Ranchito's interior features a walk-in safe with the words "Bank of Dry Gulch, Watertown" written on the shiny metal door. If things are slow, you may get an explanation from Maria or one of the other servers and even a quick look inside. (Note: No money stored here.)
Mrs. Ayala says the best thing about going to work with her children every day is the joy she feels "because it shows me that they support their father's business and have helped us with their work and support. . . . It is very nice to hear great compliments from our customers letting us know how amazing it is that it's family operated."
As for the meals she prepares at home for her mate, she said, "My husband grew up with simple eating, and there are certain things that I make for him that he loves because it reminds him so much of Mexico and his childhood, and that would simply be homemade tortillas and whole pinto beans along with a tomatillo salsa prepared in a molcajete."
Mr. and Mrs. Ayala have six grandchildren who live in the community, and the five who are school age attend Watertown schools.
For the family's Thanksgiving feast, Mrs. Ayala said, "I usually make homemade tamales, and my husband makes carnitas as well as the traditional American Thanksgiving food like turkey and ham and all the other sides."
Adding one more tip about Mi Ranchito, Maria said, "We know the menu to perfection, and when customers have a question we know the answer."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.