Rana Loca earns a second look

by Brian Clarey

Fish tacos, yucca fies and plantain chips caf’ style on the sidewalk. What’s not to like. (photo by Brian Clarey)

The sidewalk on 4 th Street is a-bustle with noontime foot traffic, a creeping vehicular queue and the occasional wail of emergency vehicle sirens careening off the urban fa’ade.

I’m sitting at a table, caf’ style, outside the Community Arts Caf’ watching the world go by, thinking about lunch and redemption.

The last time we sent a reporter to Rana Loca, the Latin restaurant inside the arts center, he was less than enamored with the place. But it’s difficult to gauge a restaurant based on one visit, particularly in the early days of its existence. But Rana Loca is a hit with our readers, as evidenced by its first-place grab in the Best Latin Food category. So I’m back, an iced tea in front of me, with fish tacos on my mind.

It’s the house favorite, my server tells me. I pair it with marquitas, which are fried plantain chips, and yucca fries.

Here on the sidewalk the scene unfolds: tables of noontime noshers tucking in under as the sun caresses 4 th Street, newly-greened trees billowing in a gentle breeze, black-clad servers slipping past with plates of food and Mexican beers held by the bottlenecks. Yes, people are drinking at lunch out here on 4th Street as percussive Latin music fills the air.

It’s the kind of setting that makes one love city life. “We’re working on some changes,” owner John Cahoon tells me.

The sidewalk caf’, for one, essentially doubles the table space. The bathroom, which had been getting some complaints, is now spotless. There are tweaks to the menu coming, he assures me, and eventually the indoor dining room will be installed in the two-story adjacent space, which Cahoon says will be the first downtown club-style lounge in Winston-Salem since the 1990s.

All well and good… but about those fish tacos? Each one is an overstuffed affair with fried mahi mahi — broiled, if you prefer — aligned with a fresh pico de gallo and a slaw made from chayote, a gourd that I have always knows as mirliton. Fabulous.

There are other items on the menu, of course: a popular Cuban sandwich, an array of Latin-tinged salads and soups, tapas that range from queso to crab cakes to hummus. There are entrees for dinner and even a brunch menu that includes a spicy variation on eggs Benedict — replete with chorizo and jalape’o hollandaise — that will surely one day find its way into my gastrointestinal system.

It’s important to remember that this is Latin fare, as opposed to Mexican food. The difference: All Mexican food is Latin food, but not all Latin food is Mexican. So yes, there are tacos and empanadas, sandwiches and paella and all manner of exotic ingredients.

Take the marquitas, fried to a crisp and graced with mojo sauce redolent of citrus and cilantro. Or the yucca, fried to a blistery bark on the outside and perfectly mushy inside. Both make excellent vessels for a trio of homemade hot sauces brought to my table.

One, my server tells me, is just “regular hot.” The middle is “pretty hot.” The chunky one on the end, he says, is “ridiculous.”

And even though it is a cool spring day, even though I am one for the hot stuff, I stick to the low end of the Scoville scale on this one.

wanna go?

Rana Loca 411 W. 4th St. Winston Salem