By Jonathan Shikes
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By Cafe Society
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Waiting tables at the Rio might be one of the most annoying jobs on the planet, but our server was friendly and surprisingly efficient, sending over other staffers to refill our drinks and bring more chips when she couldn't get there herself. And once she took our order, the food came within just a few minutes.
The guacamole was fresh and clearly scratch-made: the scoop of chunky mashed avocado came with sides of diced tomato, minced cilantro and bits of a blazing-hot roasted jalapeño, which we were supposed to mix to taste. It was an interesting way to present the guac, although I'm lazy enough to wish the kitchen had done the mixing. I was less impressed by the nachos. The kitchen had dumped on way too many black beans, which overpowered the melted cheddar and Jack and waterlogged the chips below.
I quickly abandoned that for the grilled-steak quesadilla, a refined version of a longtime menu item. Strips of tender steak grilled a juicy medium, house-roasted green chiles and gobs of melted orange cheddar had been folded into a buttery housemade tortilla, which had been toasted to an appealing crisp on the outside. Dunked in guac, sour cream and more of the free salsa, this quesadilla could have been dinner — and was when I returned to the Rio another night.
1525 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
But we were just getting started. A second round of margs soon arrived, which kept us occupied until our entrees came out. Sadly, some of the food was still underwhelming, overpriced Tex-Mex. A friend's roasted-chicken enchilada was a disaster: The chicken was overcooked, gummy and bland, made worse by a slightly sweet but otherwise flavorless enchilada sauce that was also chalky, as though it had been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. Another friend's chile relleno had gone into the fryer when the oil was too hot; its thick shell was dangerously close to scorched on the outside but doughy and oil-clogged just beneath the surface. The beans that the Rio serves with just about every entree also needed some work. One of the kitchen's original specialties, the recipe is a simple one that calls for beans, oil and salt. But the side is soupy as well as under-seasoned; it could use the depth that would come from onions. Given all the work that the restaurant is putting into retooling its menu, letting this basic slide is a mistake.
But our meal included a surprising number of hits. The best was a plate of pan-seared mahi tacos — a pair of corn tortillas loaded with seared chunks of fish, a sweet, citrusy mango salsa, a pepper-laden crema and crisp, tart slaw. The strong flavors worked together well, with the flavor of the mahi still swimming to the top. Almost as good was the smothered braised-pork burrito, which stuffed savory, slow-cooked shredded pork and melted Jack inside one of those good tortillas, then blanketed everything with a spicy green chile. On my return visit, I found that the green chile — whose texture falls somewhere between the gravy-like versions popular in this town and the thin New Mexico style — works fine on its own. Although not exactly layered with flavor, the spice and chiles are front and center, and shredded chicken adds bulk. I spooned the chile into the tortillas and made myself some messy but delicious little wraps.
The kitchen turned out enough success to convince me that the Rio has definitely raised the bar.
I'm not sure I'll ever go to the Rio just for the food. But the next time I'm drinking one of those giant margs, I'll definitely order some. That sketchy street vendor will just have to find another customer.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant