Rio Grande puts the spotlight on its kitchen

Shrimp fajitas at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant. Slide show: In the kitchen at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant.
Shrimp fajitas at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant. Slide show: In the kitchen at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant.
Mark Manger

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.

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.

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.

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

The Rio knows how to make margs. Now it's focusing on the food. Slide show: In the kitchen at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant.
Mark Manger
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