The Rio Grande margarita is a liquid Colorado landmark, along with Pike's Peak and the Barrel Man. Frozen or on the rocks, it's the drink that always comes up first in any discussion — including this one — of the Colorado chain. Founded in 1986 as a party paradise in boozy downtown Fort Collins, the concept and menu have evolved over 29 years and eight locations, but the good-time atmosphere has not. Families flock to the Rio, even at the Denver location in the heart of the city's Tribal Tattoo district, but the prevailing atmosphere is created by loud, bustling tables, no doubt discussing how to circumvent the three-margarita limit. (Fake mustaches and heavy Slavic accents are apparently ineffective.) Seems like a natural spot for happy hour, offered here and at the other locations from 3 to 6 p.m., even if food has never been the real draw at the Rio.
Credit is due to the Rio Grande for changing with the times, overhauling its food menu in 2011 and recently releasing a new cocktail list. Onetime staples of mainstream Colorado Mexican food — bright orange cheddar cheese, ground beef, crispy taco shells — are nowhere to be found. Instead, the menu reflects modern Mexican trends, with braised pork, ceviche, breakfast tacos and even some Ñs and Ós here and there. And smartly enough, the new drinks are pretty simple: variations on the iconic marg, caipirinhas, mezcal mules with Woody Creek Vodka and Del Maguey mezcal. Tecate cans, $3 drafts and Cuervo Cinge shots and Corona-impaled margaritas ($6.50) are all on the happy hour menu, but it's hard to budge from the classic. Margaritas are a buck off the regular $7, and they adorn almost every single table.
Slurping the sloppy frozen variety, I appreciated the fine balance between sweetness, tartness and alcohol, but I couldn't grasp why this tipple was the talk of the town. Having said that, by the time I had my second I thought they were the best things in the universe. Take what follows with a grain, or rim, of salt.
Crispy jalepeño caps are popping at the Rio Grande
Warm tortilla chips made down the street at Raquelita's and house salsa are set on every table, even when you've sat yourself on the patio near the Rio's new outdoor bar. Between the trailer bar, the sunshine, the billowing mist, the neon lights and the fountain, this patio is a fine place to be. And happy hour is the only few hours where smaller bites are served, the best complements to afternoon drinking. Steak, pork and chicken tacos are $3 each, and they're still much bigger than most happy hour tacos. Unfortunately, the adobo chicken is a bit tough and bland without a good sauce or cheese to help out. The braised pork fares a bit better, but its sloshed in a ton of braising liquid that sogged down the slaw and grilled pineapple.
So what next? After the less-than-stellar taco, I felt a bit wary of other meaty offerings like the steak empanada ($6) or shrimp ceviche ($7). Some crispy jalapeño caps ($4) seemed appropriate, and they did the trick, coated and fried in a textured batter and paired with an addictive poblano ranch sauce — and an incongruous side of crunchy root veggies, presumably for health reasons. The jalapeño bites were an ideal indulgence when paired with a mango/strawberry margarita, each pepper carefully neutered of seeds to keep things mild and pleasant. Occasionally they missed one, which made for a bit of a spicy thrill.
The real flaw of the Rio Grande's happy hour is that there are no great discounts, just a dollar or two knocked off here and there. And the LoDo outpost is one of the few locations not to feature a late-night happy hour, which seems like a better time for these offerings. But from the mountains to Coors Field, the Rio is a one-size-fits-all kind of place. That means it might just fit you.
Perfect for: A business lunch at the Rio sounds tempting — but the long waits can kill your workday. Plus, three-margarita lunches are frowned on by modern corporate culture. Plan to meet up after your shifts for happy hour venting.
Don't Miss: If you're going to get a frozen margarita, go for the mango/strawberry combo. And if you want dinner with that margarita, plan on a pork burrito ($11) smothered in the surprisingly good green chile. It makes for a more satisfying meal than trying to eat off the happy hour menu alone.
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