I’m going to go ahead and make some people mad and say that Café Rio is a mediocre restaurant, at best, that substitutes quantity for quality and dupes people into buying food that would be better, cheaper, and more authentic elsewhere. I know that many people love Café Rio and I don’t mean to upset you if you’re one of them. But I really can’t figure out what so may people like about huge helpings of mediocrity.
I’ve eaten at Café Rio four times that I can remember. The first time was because everyone told me it was the greatest place in the world and I wanted to try it out. After that, I’ve eaten there because I was with other people who wanted to go. With each visit I’ve always expected to have my opinions reversed. After all, how could so many people like a restaurant that has proven so average on my own visits? Yet each time I visit I come away wondering why dish seems to be more or less the same, and how I couldn’t hear a single word anyone in my party was saying (because the dining area environment is similar to a commercial warehouse or manufacturing plant).
I’ve eaten a bunch of things at Café Rio. I’ve ordered at least four dishes, plus I’ve usually eaten some of Laura’s food when we’ve been there together. I can’t say that any of these dishes were particularly bad. In some cases they had a relatively good flavor. On the other hand, not a single one was the least bit memorable. What’s more, the portions are huge. This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing; however, huge portions are often a warning signal that a restaurant is trying to hide something. Keep in mind that it doesn’t cost very much to throw more beans and rice or lettuce (or most ingredients, for that matter) on a dish. On the other hand, what does cost a lot more is hiring more capable chefs or buying more salient recipes. Café Rio clearly went with the economic approach in this case. That would be fine, except that I can go get filled up on Mexican food for a lot less at a place like Betos/Rancheritos. Heck, I could probably even get more bang for my buck at Del Taco, and the flavor and authenticity of Del Taco is comparable to Café Rio’s. The problem, then, is that Café Rio’s prices lead me to believe that it will be better than typical Mexican fast food, when in fact it’s a little bit worse.
As I mentioned above, I’m not a fan Café Rio’s environment. It has that commercialized, faux-ethnic atmosphere that seems to be pathetically screaming “we’re watered down for the mainstream American consumer. You should eat here because we’re safe.” That might be excusable, except that the décor is combined with what seems like an effort to make the restaurant as loud as possible. Every time I’ve gone to Café Rio I’ve visited a different location, but in each one all I could hear was an annoying din that swallowed up all other noise. Café Rio falls into that weird niche between fast food and sit-down restaurants, but oddly, its environment is worse than either. While pedestrian Americana restaurants like Chilies, Applebee’s, Red Robin, etc. are vexingly generic and also offer mediocre food, at least I can carry on a conversation while I’m there.
In the end, Café Rio will fill you up. Then again, so will a lot places (Chuck-A-Rama, for example, which is of comparable quality to Café Rio). I’ve also never been to an American city that didn’t have a better Mexican restaurant. So the next time your out, try something different. You might be surprised by what you find.