Cafe Rio: At $6 Bucks, Lunchtime’s Best Value
Their Daily Specials Are Not To Be Ignored
Disclaimer: I do not work for Cafe Rio, I am not paid by them, but yet I warn you – This can hardly be an objective review, as I may one day wish to be dipped in their hot sauce and be tucked in that night, under a giant sized warm, homemade tortilla, so I can nibble at its salty edges as I sleep. In a word, I’m a “fan”.
Lunch has become an increasingly expensive proposition in recent years, with the average quality lunch drifting closer to $10 or more, Café Rio really deserves a nod as a low price option for a tasty, high quality lunchtime (or even dinner-time) retreat.
For those unfamiliar with Café Rio, they are the award winning (60 times over) Utah based restaurant chain founded in 1997, by 30-year master chef, Steve Stanley and his wife Patricia. The cuisine is inspired by recipes from the Rio Grande area of Northern Mexico, Southern Texas and New Mexico.
By 2004 the company was purchased by SKM/Apax Partners and moved outside of Utah for the first time. Today, they have over 50 locations in 10 U.S. states, spanning from California to Virginia.
Their philosophy is to make “Every Meal a Masterpiece” and at Café Rio you will never find a pre-made meal. Everything is made fresh, right before your eyes. From the chicken breasts and steaks cooking on the open grill, to the homemade tortillas, baked to perfection.
Although one of their award winning smothered burritos or Mexican chicken salads can run you well over $10, for our purposes today, this writer wants to concentrate on Café Rio’s daily specials.
These are the most under-rated, least talked about items available on their menu, but each is not only a fantastic value, but also a fantastic culinary addition that should not be overlooked.
Every Monday, the week starts with Elsa’s Chile Rellenos. For people not familiar with chile rellenos they are large chile peppers, stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese and deep fried in a thin bread crust batter. You then have a side of rice, your choice of black or pinto beans and choice of hot, medium or mild sauces.
Then as with all Café Rio entrees, you additionally can add your choice of fresh made Pico de Gallo, or salsa and guacamole and sour cream (the latter two are extra). As an added bonus for the $6.75 lunch, your choice of soft drink is included and this is consistent throughout the weekly line-up of specials.
Each Tuesday presents the opportunity for a Mazatlan escape, with Coconut Shrimp Tacos and the most inexpensive of lunchtime specials as you can choose between one or two tacos (choose two, or go hungry), but for as little as $3.95 ($5.95 for two) you can drift away for a momentary respite to Margaritaville, with these tasty tacos and their wonderful mango sauce. Once again, choice of beans, salsa or pico and a drink are yours for the price.
Wednesday it’s time for the chicken tostada salad, which for my money, is just the discounted little brother to Café Rio’s normal chicken salad – especially if you don’t eat the tortilla with the original salad. The smaller corn tortilla is really the only thing that differentiates this special, from the original menu item and because of this, this writer deems the Wednesday special as one of the best values of the week.
Thursday is another one of my favorites and honestly, I believe Yolanda’s Pork (or Chicken) tamales are so good, I wish they were on the menu every day. I rarely miss an opportunity to enjoy these cornhusk wrapped, little pieces of heaven (I usually will even pay extra for a third tamale as a regular order is two).
Every Friday, its time for my other favorite, the grilled steak (or chicken) Fideo.
Now, this is the one “original” Café Rio meal that there is some controversy over in my family. This dish’s authenticity (and I can even support this argument myself, having lived in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas) originates from Spain, although the Mexican versions of it can vary. From the province of Morelia (and similarly in South Texas), Fideo is more of a soup, with small, typically four to six inch noodles, but nothing so large it couldn’t be floated in a spoon.
Café Rio’s version on the other hand is more like the New Mexican version, a hearty Italian style spaghetti noodle, surrounded with Mexican flavors.
In fairness to Café Rio, I Google’d over 88,000 fideo recipes and I found a number that met both qualifications. Many did resemble Café Rio’s weekly special, but many more seemed to be served in a soup tourin, like I remembered of life in the RGV.
Either way, if you were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against this writer NOT showing up to a Café Rio somewhere in the chain, each and every Friday. It may be different than my Texican sensibilities would assume, but it is another of the most flavorful, most original entrees on their menu. The pasta is served, stewed with some kind of Mexican peppers and then topped with fresh cilantro and pico de gallo, a dollop of sour cream and some tasty corn tortilla strips (and of course, the meat of your choice).
Saturday finishes out the week, as they are closed on Sunday (I believe as a chain) either through adherence to the Mormon code of its founders, or perhaps even just courtesy to all the families that work there (a preponderance are Mexican or Latino).
Either way, it’s South of the border again for Saturday’s special with the Cancun Fried Shrimp Taco. Now unlike the Tuesday special, this Cancun variety only comes as a single taco (and with good reason). It’s freakin’ huge! This Mammoth sized taco is stuffed full of shrimp, lettuce, sour cream and salsa and although one of the few items on the menu served without any additional sauce. . . It is absolutely delicious.
There really isn’t a bad day to go to Café Rio (except for Sunday. . . I go through withdrawal each week), but despite the other flavorful favorites on the menu, you’d be hard pressed to see me ordering anything but a special Wednesday-Friday, not only from culinary standpoint, but from a monetary one as well.
I have found that if you stick with the specials daily, you can eat at Café Rio for less money than McDonalds and the other burger ilk. Even less than the majority of “value meals” at bargain Del Taco or Taco Bell and even less than Café Rio’s main competiton, places like Del Fresh, Costa Vida, Barbacoa or McDonald’s owned Chipotle.
Not only can you enjoy a daily special from Café Rio (for my money – the highest quality food in this sector) for under $10, but if you factor in their stamp card program (for every ten meals, you get a free meal), it is possible to eat at Café Rio for just over $6.00 per day and then reward yourself with whatever you’d like, every tenth meal. . . Including the amazing salmon taco salad (a $14 value)!
So what are you waiting for? Meet me at Café Rio today!