By Ben Landreth
By Isa Jones
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Although I certainly appreciate craft cocktails, there's a special place in my heart for white-trash margaritas that come in a multitude of colors and fill birdbath-sized glasses. Is that nuclear juice made in a blender with flavored syrup and alcohol that's maybe not even tequila? Bring it on.
So I've never needed much cajoling to go to any of the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant locations, where I'll grab a seat in the middle of the crowd and talk louder and louder as I get closer and closer to the three-drink limit. Besides the easily consumed jungle-juice-like margs, the Rio outposts all feature excellent people-watching and a pop-music soundtrack, and I love people-watching and pop music the same way I love frozen margaritas.
But even after my brain's been addled by those margs, I've clung to one rule: Don't eat at the Rio. Ever since an early meal there where my burrito appeared to be filled with Dinty Moore beef stew, I've always managed to get the hell out before the drunk munchies set in. I will eat a burrito from the most questionable storefront kitchen or street vendor in existence if I'm drunk and hungry. But the Rio's food? No way.
1525 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Not that it mattered. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who goes to the Rio for the food.
The homegrown chain got its start in 1986, when a trio of Texans from the Gulf Coast — Pat McGaughran and twin brothers Andre and Steven Mouton — opened the first Rio Grande in Fort Collins because they missed the Tex-Mex food they'd enjoyed back home. At the time, frozen margaritas were just getting big, so they rolled out their own version of that, made in an ice cream machine with so much booze that they had to cut people off after three — though not before those people had consumed enough fuel to incite the kind of debauchery that only tequila inspires.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant
Needless to say, it didn't take long for the Rio to gain a reputation as a place to start your night strong, and the party just grew as locations opened in Boulder, Greeley, Denver, Park Meadows and Steamboat Springs, each one packing in revelers to capacity on weekends. And for 25 years, that was enough.
But when Jason Barrett took over as CEO of the Rio Grande restaurant group in the summer of 2011, he pulled all of his kitchen managers into a room and flashed them excerpts of reviews from Yelp, Tripadvisor and Urbanspoon. "They were mediocre at best, and in some ways, they were downright critical of the food," he says. "They were complimentary of the margaritas and atmosphere, of course, the other two areas of our triumvirate. But I asked, 'Are we satisfied with our food reputation?'"
The answer was a resounding no.
So the company undertook a major retooling of those kitchens, adding a half-dozen tacos and braised pork as new signature items while working on improving the quality of everything else the Rio serves. And the restaurants began calling attention to their food. "One of the most under-reported aspects of the Rio is the scratch kitchen," Barrett explains. "Places like Chipotle brought that to the forefront, but Pat has been doing it since 1986. It's something the company has been proud of for a long time, but we've never talked about it. Our salsa is made fresh every day, our sauces are made every day, and our tortillas are made every day. We look for local sourcing at the foundation of our food. So now we're getting the word out and talking about why we're doing what we're doing." To that end, the menu now includes an insert calling attention to the Rio's housemade tortillas, natural chicken and steak, scratch guacamole and home-roasted chiles.
The attempt sounded admirable, but I was skeptical. The fact that the company had always had scratch kitchens was news to me, but why hadn't those kitchens turned out better food? Still, when I recently found myself in LoDo with a hungry, not particularly picky group, I decided to put the Rio to the test.
As expected, the two-story Rio at 1525 Blake, which has been packed since the day it opened in 1997, was overflowing with people in various stages of inebriation, filling the booths, tables and stools of both the downstairs and upstairs bars, where they were desperately trying to get the attention of a single cocktail waitress who bounced between parties like a Ping-Pong ball, never lifting her eyes from the floor for fear of being accosted by someone else. My group put our name on the dining-room list — an hour-long wait, we were told — and fought our way to the bar.
Fortunately, our table was ready in just a half-hour, and the hostess led us to one of the compartmentalized dining rooms. The roar of the crowd continued to echo off the walls as we discussed the menu while digging into the complimentary chips and salsa that our server had brought. The chips were warm and the homemade salsa was spicy. Not bad, I thought as I scooped up another bite. Not bad at all.