Tucked into an unassuming strip mall in Newport is one of the most popular restaurants in the area, Rio Grande.
“It’s got the best margaritas,” a barista at one of my favorite coffee houses told me one day. “It’s kind of a dive but the food is so good. And it’s cheap.”
Then a second person said, “Hilarious. I can’t believe you’re going to review Rio Grande.”
They found it amusing, maybe, because Rio Grande needs no review. And no introduction. Apparently it just kind of exists.
But on a recent Friday night my friend Aaron and I decide to put it to the test anyway. Earlier in the day, I’d posted a status on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to join me on my review. My friend who recently moved to San Francisco chimed in: “Wish we could hang, as I miss you.”
I responded in kind: “Missing you, too, and kind of missing Rio Grande … mmm.”
OK, so my friend knew about it and missed it even though she lived within walking distance of some of the best Mexican restaurants in San Francisco. I realized she missed Rio Grande as much as she missed me. Maybe more.
When Aaron and I arrive at the poorly lit Newport strip center on Carothers Road, everything looks shut down. All we see are red neon signs for Radio Shack, Pet Planet and a college called Damar. Then in the dark distance we see two heavy wooden doors open and a line of people stretching across the parking lot.
We find out there’s a 40-minute wait, but it’s a Friday night and almost every other place in Newport is packed as well. Because my friend doesn’t want to wait, we wind up at Mitchell’s in Newport.
So I try again the next night, Saturday. This time, I call.
“Can I make a reservation?”
“No, we don’t accept reservations.” “Well, when can I come when it’s not packed? 9 (p.m.)?” “Yes, 9 is good. Or 9:30. You’ll be able to get a table then.”
I walk in and the place is extremely lively, full of animated patrons and laid out like a diner, with a string of booths and tables snuggled up next to each other. In its first incarnation it could have been a Frisch’s.
There’s only one table left, right beside the kitchen. I look around. There’s a really diverse crowd: tables of Hispanics, bored teenage girls twirling their hair, what looks like gray-haired academics, families and some hipsters.
Because I’d heard their margaritas were great, I try one. I’m girly and order a Strawberry Margarita ($4.75), even though I know it’s not a real margarita. It tastes like store-bought Margarita mix. It has that antiseptic aftertaste that you sometimes get from those. I barely taste the tequila, but I find out after drinking half of it that it definitely has some. They offer three sizes: Regular, Jumbo and Monster (44 oz.). You can also order a large pitcher.
I order one of the few appetizers offered, all involving cheese and tortilla chips: Beef and Bean Nachos ($4.99), Beef Nachos ($4.50), Nachos and Beans ($3.99) and Cheese Nachos ($3.50), among others. I chose the Cheese Nachos. They come out within five minutes. I’m impressed.
The tortilla chips are a bit greasy but very crispy, and the very creamy cheese sauce tastes like queso asadero. It tastes like white cheddar married with Monterrey Jack and has the texture but not the flavor of Velveeta. It’s basic. I’m happy.
I don’t order for a while, and it’s possible my server forgot about me. She comes back three times, but because I’m never ready. I think she has given up on me. Eventually, she sits herself down at the booth across the way and starts replacing sugar packets. Then she begins sweeping the floor and mopping down tables, and I watch as the remnants of burritos whirl up in front of me. I’m not thrilled. This is one of my pet peeves.
I finally ask if I can order. I get the Enchiladas Suizas ($8.49) for here and the Chicken Fajitas ($9.99) to go.
The Enchiladas Suizas come out within 15 minutes. For $8.49, there’s a full plate. I devour them. They’re smothered in Mexican white cheese. It seems to be the same that was on the nachos, with the addition of lightly spiced roasted chicken, diced tomatoes and a mild verde sauce.
But it’s the Chicken Fajitas served with tender roasted chicken bathed in its own juices and a mild spice marinade peppered with paprika, peppers and onions that wins me over and makes me a fan of Rio Grande. I don’t think I’ve had better fajitas anywhere. Usually, the chicken is marinated in some generic concoction and grilled to the point of being sterile.
Here, it’s juicy, fresh and flavorful.
As I file out of Rio Grande at 10 p.m. on Saturday, I notice half the restaurant is still there. I ask Koka’s barista about it the next morning.
“Why is it so popular?” She lives around the corner and goes there all the time. She ponders the question.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Everybody just seems to have a great time when they’re there. It just makes you feel good.”
Maybe this is the something that Rio Grande has. Well, besides the best fajitas I’ve ever had.
Go: 34 Carothers Road, Newport
Hours: 11a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Entrée Prices: $6.99-$11.49
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty
Accessibility: Fully accessible