Wednesday, April 1, 2009

No Photos Allowed

Success has been ours when following the restaurant recommendations of hair stylists.

So when Jackie (Simple Pleasures Salon, Hurricane, UT) mentioned Café Rio for Mexican food, we were confident of a good meal. However, the note on the front door raised a question in our mind: “No photography allowed in the restaurant or on the premises.”

Now photographs of food are important for describing meals, and photos of the restaurant provide the setting for the meal. However, we chose food over artistic expression and entered.

[As you read on, we would like you to use the “visualize method.” This is similar to the “think method” recommended by Harold Hill as the way to learn to play the instruments for the brass band the townspeople in River City purchased (Music Man). We hope that you enjoy these photos of flowers as you visualize our experience. Think. Visualize.]

About 20 four-person tables and 10 two-person tables filled the dining area with little space between them. About ninety percent of the chairs were occupied. The back third of the restaurant, reminiscent of a fast-food arrangement, was occupied by customers in a snake-like line leading to the counter to place orders. It was noisy.

Curious, we pressed on. The line passed by two wall-mounted menus. OK, the usual tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas with combos of . . . . The line move quickly passed the first menu. We approached the second. Concentrate on one dish or select two . . ., what’s included and what sides have to be ordered . . ., what about nachos. “What are you having?” “Don’t know yet.” The line was moving. We rounded the final turn. Time to order. Getting noisier.

Chuck: “I’ll have the taco. With flour tortilla.” Person #1 slapped a tortilla in an aluminum container and pushed it to Person #2. Thinking that the tortilla seemed small, he added, “And an enchilada.” An empty aluminum dish pushed along.

Kate (after being by-passed by Person #1 who thought that Chuck had ordered for her): “Wait, those orders were his. I’d like two fish tacos.”

With noise from the kitchen added to noise from the dining room, “------ ---- ------ beans?” asked Person #2. Chuck: “What?”

“Rice and beans?” “Yes.” It seemed noisier.

“------ --- black ------?” Suddenly the eight counter staff members broke into “--------- ----- ------- --------, Café Rio. Yeah.” Or something like that. Interesting addition to the process. “Pardon me,” in a rising voice.

“Pinto or black beans?” Person #3. “Pinto,” from Chuck, losing sight of his dish as it was passed down the line.

“Do I order the nachos and salsa here?” he asked. “At the end of the line,” was the answer from Person #3, who now seemed far away as the line moved.

“I’d like an order of nachos and salsa,” Chuck asked of Person #4. Silently, another large container was added to the tray.

Persons #5 and #6 came from the kitchen, and the entire group broke into “--------- ----- ------- --------, Café Rio. Yeah.”

“---------- ------ ---------?“ asked #7. “I’m sorry,” answered Chuck, when he realized #7 was staring at him.

“Salsa and lettuce?” came the question. “Just salsa,” with a sigh of relief as the end seemed near.

“Oh, no, what have I ordered,” was the thought going through Chuck’s mind as he saw the three eight-inch diameter containers filled with a taco, rice, beans; an enchilada, rice, and beans; nachos and salsa; and small containers of salsa.

The final turn to #8 at the register. “Anything to drink?”

Witnessing the questioning, Kate, with a reasonable order, breezed through the line with ease.

A welcome turn of events then followed. We had our choice of tables. From this vantage point, we witnessed how smooth the operation was when veteran customers knew what to expect and what they wanted. Many had time to joke with Persons #1-#8.

So, you might ask, did we get the food that we ordered? And, if we did, how was it? The answer to question number one is yes, both Chuck and I got exactly what we ordered – truly amazing! And, in answer to questions number two, the food was pretty good.

Chuck asked that both his taco (on a flour tortilla) and burrito be stuffed with the chili roasted beef. This was the shredded beef style which I am beginning to appreciate, but he remains a ground beef man. Still, the very large taco and half of the even larger enchilada disappeared in quick order. The enchilada was topped with a somewhat mild red sauce that lacked the punch of New Mexico red chili sauce. The taco came with a side of pico de gallo – good but not notable. His sides were the green chili rice (more on this later) and pinto beans. Since he likes the smooth refried beans, these were deemed just O.K.

The mahi mahi fish tacos were the special of the day, and I ordered the plate of two (on flour tortillas) with rice and black beans. The first station in the ordering line was the tortilla cooking grill. We could see the staff slapping the uncooked tortillas onto the hot surface where they immediately began to puff and bubble.

These tortillas were one of the highlights of my meal. The soft tortillas tasted of fine bread and cradled the fish, chopped cabbage, and cilantro. I do wish that the cabbage had been shredded a bit finer and that the cilantro did not include the long stems. It became messy trying to pick the cilantro leaves from the stems – especially when the cilantro had come in contact with the crema topping.

Crema is a sauce that is traditionally made with sour cream, mayo, cilantro, lime, and seasonings and is a customary topping for fish tacos. This crema was also blended with green chilies and was so good that we used what was left in my extra cup as a dip for the tortilla chips. This is something I need to remember as a general condiment with mild fish.

With one reservation (converted rice), Café Rio’s green chili rice was perhaps the best Mexican-style restaurant rice I have eaten. It contained none of the tomato, chili powder, or minced vegetables that is common in many restaurants. Rather, it was simply white rice with small bits of minced green chili and minced cilantro. Were I to return to Café Rio, I would ask for no beans and double rice. It especially added some oomph to the mild fish tacos.

The St. George Café Rio is the flagship of a small regional chain with outlets in Arizona (one), Nevada (four), and Utah (seventeen). The food was sufficiently good that I hope we come across other Café Rio’s during our next five weeks travels in Utah. Not gourmet and I am not sure just how authentic, but I would still consider this to be a 4.0 Addie stop.

Our meal finished, Kate got up to use the rest room. “Are you leaving?” came the pleading request from a customer just missed the last available table.

“Yes, in just a minute,” was Chuck’s response.

“Good. Don’t get up; I’ll just put my tray here to save the table,” came the quick response.

If there was ever a time to have photos of the food, the restaurant, and the staff, this was the place. The next time you’re in St. George, UT, stop in to the Café Rio and see how the real thing compares with your application of the “visualize method.”

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