After not authoring a restaurant review post for quite some time, the opportunity to get back into the much too easy food critiquing business presented itself to me this afternoon when Paige and I decided to eat lunch at the trendy new Mexican chain place to come to Missoula. So after skipping breakfast and working up an appetite, the two of us ventured out to North Reserve Street to eat at Café Rio.
As with most big name restaurant chains that come to Missoula, business is crazy busy for the initial honeymoon stage. This has been no exception at all for Café Rio. Since opening on November 7, the place has enjoyed loooong lines and a never ending sea of customers. To this late date in December, Café Rio continues to be swamped. When Paige and I walked in today, we got behind about fifteen people waiting to order. The seating area was about 75% full and by the time we got out food and sat down, it was nearing capacity.
Okay, let’s talk about the ordering format at Café Rio. As I alluded to above, you stand in line and order up front. You go through a cafeteria type line where you talk to about four different employees to get your desired order. Although you only talk to four employees, they have a small army of workers occupying the “cafeteria” type line on the other side of the glass. They are spinning tortillas, warming up meals, and providing support to the workers dealing directly with the customers. While in line you tell the first person who greets you what you want and he/she will make your main entrée item and get it baked. Next, you will talk to another employee who will put sauce (s) on your entrée. Next, another employee will dish out your rice/beans, veggies, or other special items that come with your meal. Finally, you get to the cashier and he/she will get you your drinks, chips, desserts, and ring you up.
Once you get through the hectic, busy ordering process, it is finally time to enjoy your food! I ordered the single sweet pork enchilada meal ($5.60). The double enchilada meal is just a little over a $1 more but I am so happy that I did not get that option because my single was more than enough food. With the enchilada plates they give you a generous portion of cilantro rice and then your choice of pinto or black beans. I went with the pinto beans. Paige got (are you ready for this)….MEXICAN PASTA! I had never heard of such a thing. It was fideo pasta with your choice of either steak or chicken topped with veggies and sprinkled with lime juice. It was the special of the day and came with a drink and was only $6.85. And, because we couldn’t resist and because I knew I would write this review, we also got the chips with salsa and queso. For a little under $5 they give you a large portion of chips, two different salsas, and a big bowl of queso dip.
When it comes to the quality of the food, it was pretty good. The chips tasted great. Of course they were tortilla chips but they had kind of a buttery taste to them. I thought both salsas were average, maybe lacking in flavor. The queso dip was great and they gave us so much that we could put it on our entrees as well! My beans and rice were both good. I enjoyed taking a chip and dipping it in the queso and then re-dipping it in my rice and beans. My sweet pork enchilada was decent, but it did not match the goodness of the sweet pork enchilada I had at Costa Vida (Costa Vida is a place very similar to Café Rio….exact same concept and similar menu). The enchilada sauce was about average as well. I took a bite of Paige’s Mexican pasta and found it very tasty with a unique flavor and texture! She personally gave it a rave review. Café Rio gets extra points for such a creative menu item.
So obviously Café Rio impressed me with some of their food items while just meeting expectations with others. But, there is something that makes Café Rio stand out and allows it to get by with some subpar tasting food, namely, it has that “it” factor. What exactly am I talking about? It is just a fun place to eat at with lots of options!
Let’s just start with the dining area. The restaurant is filled with brightly colored round and square tables. Hot blue, hot yellow, and hot green table tops with a contrasting color splashed on it cover the floor. Chairs painted in the same hot colors splashed with the same contrasting colors are paired with the tables. Interesting light fixtures illuminate the place and there are plenty of chili pepper decorations to let you know that you are eating food from south of the border. It is a fun atmosphere and enjoyable to eat a meal in, even if it is filled with people.
Remember how I said some of the food lacked a little bit of flavor? Well, don’t worry, you can make up for it by adding one or many of their special sauces they have available. At your disposal, you can try a myriad of different hot sauces. They also carry a whole line of sauces from a brand called Iguana. I tried the Iguana bold gold habanero sauce and the Iguana rockin’ red pepper sauce. I thoroughly enjoyed dumping out these sauces onto my plate and dipping the chips into them. Many of these you have probably never seen before, let alone tasted, so it makes for a very unique experience.
Finally, Café Rio offers an awesome drink selection. Shame on me for just ordering water but luckily a drink came with Paige’s meal and she got to test out the selection. First off, they have the crushed ice pellets, a great way to make any drink taste better. After you get your ice, it is time to make the tough decision on what you actually want to drink. If you want to go basic, you can choose from the expanded Coca-Cola products they offer. If you want to add a little bit of a kick, you can add any amount of flavor shots that you want! Yes, exactly as if you were going to make an Italian soda, Café Rio has all the syrups available for you to add to your pop. But if soda and flavor shots are not your thing, you can go for something a little more exotic and try one of their limeades. Paige tried the mint limeade. While Paige loved it, I can’t say I was much of a fan. But hey, they also offer regular limeade, strawberry lemonade, and a really weird milk type drink called Horchata! The amount of combination possibilities you can whip up is pretty impressive.
While I am skeptical of some restaurants that open up in Missoula, I think Café Rio will enjoy great success here. Like I echoed throughout this whole post, the place is just fun. Maybe more importantly, it is reasonably priced. Add in the facts that the food portions are big and that the city currently does not have a place like it, and I see Café Rio operating in Missoula for a long time. I recommend that everyone gives it a try. Don’t Blink.