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Dinner for One: Sometimes the Good Stuff is Right Under Your Nose

This entry is part of a series, Austin Scene»

The Border

The Rio Grande river separates Texas from Mexico. That’s a long way away from my house, so it’s not real convenient to run down there for a big ol’ plate of Tex-Mex food. With the rest of the family out of town (wifey, daughterperson and her groupie, even Sonia the Red Golden, all abandoned me away) and me relegated to cat-herding cat-sitting, I wasn’t about to fix a meal of Mexican food for one.

Okay, that covers method and motive. But what opportunity to choose? There are plenty of options locally, of course. But I wanted to try something new. Partly for the novelty, but also to be sure I haven’t been overlooking something tasty by sticking with the regular places.

So I scanned Urbanspoon Austin quickly did massive amounts of research to begin my new-found quest. I noticed a place that was almost in my neighborhood: Rio Grande Tex-Mex Restaurant. Couldn’t be more than a couple miles away. (Or 1.8 miles, according to Google Maps.) But I couldn’t get a picture of it in my mind. Something that close, serving food, surely I knew about it. No pictures online to help me through my senior moment refresh my memory, though.

Then it came to me: The old Water Tank Bar! Yeah, that place closed a long time ago, and with good reason. Whatever backfilled the Water Tower wasn’t even THAT good. So naturally, my quality-sorted mental index had written the location completely off. In spite of the fact that I go by there several times a month. (A mind is a terrible thing, eh?) Now the Rio Grande’s in the building.

A quick jaunt in the red jalopy and I was there. It took longer to get a parking spot than it did to actually drive there. This place was hopping! At 8 P.M. too. Okay, it’s summertime (here). People eat later in the summertime. And it was Friday evening. Still, a crowd this big was a good sign. And even with the parking lot full, there wasn’t a mob waiting out front for a table. Good, good; no long wait either! I snagged a slot right in front when some obviously satisfied diners headed home.

The dining areas were packed, with plenty of service staff moving food and drinks about smoothly. I was greeted immediately by a young lady who was dressed like something out of the Sixties, and that made me smile. She led me to an open booth that was ideal for people-watching. I had a great view of the big bar and all the inside dining area. The outside dining was behind me, though, so I couldn’t tell what all was going on out there. The weather was great, warm and dry, so outside seating was completely taken. (I noticed that when I parked the car.)

Chips and table salsa arrived quickly, with a big glass of water. After a few big bites of the salsa I learned the purpose of the water! This salsa is slightly above average for heat, with plenty of cilantro and citrus in it. It’s clearly hand-made, not a salsa cruda but a partially blended mix. I think it may have had some sun-dried tomatoes in with the fresh, and the spices were well balanced. The heat didn’t overpower the other flavors, and it certainly wasn’t zesty enough to prevent instant addiction. I went through two small bowls. Oh, and the chips were the extra-thin type, served warm and crispy. A great start!

The menu at the Rio Grande is quite extensive, with the first page dedicated to appetizers and soups & salads, and includes a small-print listing of the side dishes available. There’s vegetarian offerings as well as plenty of seafood and carnivore-satisfiers. Shrimp Diablo looks to be the novel appetizer; I’m sure PJ will want to try those. (Shrimp doesn’t like me or I’d have tried them myself.)

The next page is dominated by enchilada dinner choices. Decisions, decisions! Traditional versions are bolstered by guacamole, mole poblano, chipotle and mushroom editions, among others. If you’re an enchilada fan, this list is for you. There are also a number of charbroiled entrées on the sheet; it appears they have a big grill and aren’t afraid to use it. The listing of Mexican plates and house specialties is huge, and includes seafood, beef, chicken and pork plates. Mixed in there are three or four vegetarian meals, so there’s something for everyone.

Rio Grande serves lunch specials and breakfast plates (on weekends), and has a nice selection of breakfast tacos for dining-in or takeout. Something to consider next time I drive by there on my way to Starbucks.

Rio Grande Plate 

I recently reviewed a place that serves authentic, grandma-style Tex-Mex; simple, rich, not too spicy. Rio Grande’s food is more like a mariachi band in your mouth, with brash, bold flavors and plenty of energy. I had the Beef Fajita Enchiladas, and it was a big dinner. Beans and rice, the classic sides, were present and accounted for. However, the beans weren’t the usual, bland refrieds; these were Charro Beans. A bit pedestrian in content, but plenty of flavor (and some bacon!). I got the impression they were made daily in a big ol’ pot in the back. The rice, though, that was outstanding! Not a red Mexican rice, which can be a bit heavy. This stuff was light and fluffy, cooked all the way through. Seasoning was light, to match the texture and mouth feel. A great yellow rice!

The enchiladas? They were large and filling. The beef was extra-tender, having been marinated well and aggressively seasoned. There was plenty of smoke from the grill in the flavor. I was glad they’d chopped the meat into smaller pieces; I don’t like fajita enchiladas where the meat’s the same length as that served for regular fajitas. That’s messy! (Well, these were too, but not because they fell apart due to large pieces of meat. It was my fault.) The sauce was a combination of chili gravy with a scoop of queso sauce across the top.

I worked and worked, but the enchiladas still nearly beat me. I got into Man vs. Food Nation mode at the end, though, and finished them off. Next time, I go for a long run before dining at the Rio! (Or maybe a smaller meal? Nah.) Looking around at other tables, they were all served plenty of food. The margaritas were in the big bowl-shaped glasses too. No scrimping here!

One thing I noticed while eating: Lots of folks there knew others in the crowd. Lots of spontaneous meet-and-greet going on, people walking to other tables to chat. Yes, it’s a local place; not some impersonal joint filled with anonymous, once-only passersby. I like that! It also says the community has accepted and supports the Rio Grande nicely.

In summary, I had a very nice dinner for one in a “new” place that’s been hidden from me by my own foibles. I’m glad I got that fixed! I’ll be back soon, family in tow, to get a more extensive read on the Rio Grande dining experience…

Rio Grande Tex Mex - Pflugerville on Urbanspoon

Rio Grande Tex-Mex Restaurant, 15821 Central Commerce Dr., Pflugerville, TX 78660. Phone 512.252.1800. Open seven days a week: Monday-Thursday, 11:00 AM – 9:30 PM; Friday, 11:00 AM – 10:30 PM;  Saturday, 9:00 AM – 10:30 PM; Sunday 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. They have a new location in Hutto; visit the Rio Grande website for info. (Note: There’s also a location in Round Rock, same menu, with slightly different hours and a different website; apparently their old website…)

Enjoy the (Very Local Tex-Mex) Heat!

Entries in this series:
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  2. Restaurant Review: Gumbo's Louisiana Style Café
  3. Restaurant Review: Chola Indian Restaurant
  4. Restaurant Review: Fujian Grand China Buffet, Austin
  5. Restaurant Review: Casa Garcia's Tex-Mex Restaurant
  6. Review: Mesa Rosa Mexican Restaurant
  7. Restaurant Review: Truluck's Seafood, Steak and Crab House
  8. Restaurant Review Update: Fujian Grand China Buffet Restaurant
  9. Restaurant Review: Pho Viet Restaurant
  10. Sunday Brunch Anniversary Celebration: Moonshine Restaurant Patio Bar and Grill
  11. Late-Lunch Steaks at the Blue Oak Grill
  12. Mama Roux: So Good There's A Song About It, Sort Of...
  13. Phil's Ice House, an Austin-Weird Place for Great Burgers
  14. Easter Sunday Dinner: A Poor Experience at a Usually Reliable Locale
  15. A Sedate Spring Lunch at Zed’s
  16. Looking for a Taste of Germany? Well, We Tried…
  17. Fresh and Tasty Tex-Mex, Prepared by a Grandma
  18. The HomeField (Grill) Advantage
  19. Dinner for One: Sometimes the Good Stuff is Right Under Your Nose
  20. Smoky Heaven in Round Rock: Johnny T’s BBQ
  21. Tex-Mex, Better’n Sex (Says So on the Menu)
  22. The Quest Begins Anew (Just Pho Me): Mai Lien Bistro
  23. A Little Bit of the French Quarter, Here in Central Texas
  24. Quick Bites: El Caribe Tex-Mex
  25. It’s Good, It’s Italian, and You Don’t Have to Go to Europe to Get It
  26. Casa G’s for Lunch (Hint: It’s Awesome)
  27. Chola Indian Restaurant: A Good Indian Eatery Gets Better
  28. Tacos are Brain Food, and Brainiacs Eat at El Taquito…
  29. Get Your Indian Food Fix the Easy Way: Tärkă Indian Kitchen
  30. Late Lunch at Mandola’s Italian Market; Worth the Wait…
  31. I Didn’t Know Sichuan, China Included Round Rock
  32. Sunday Brunch at Pecan Street Station; Good Choice…
  33. Does Kung Fu Buffet Lives Up to Its Name? My Sample Says…
  34. The Underground Visits Ethiopia for Dinner (and Has a Wonderful Time)
  35. Pho Lee Vietnamese, It’s Total-Lee Pho (and Very Good)
  36. A Taste of Jalisco in North Austin
  37. The Great Pho Quest Continues: Pho Thaison in Allandale
  38. From New Pho to Old: Lunch at a (Nearly) Forgotten Friend, Tan My
  39. Z’Tejas, a Wonderful Place for Brunch and Clan Revelry
  40. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Round Rock: Great Meat; As For the Rest…
  41. LongHorn Steakhouse Round Rock: A New Family Favorite
  42. Salt Lick BBQ in Round Rock: More Than Finger-Licking Good
  43. Drinks and Snacks on the Deck at McCormick & Schmick’s
  44. Going Back Pho More at a Local Favorite
  45. Swagat Indian: A Disappointment With a Few Bright Spots
  46. Branch BBQ in Wells Branch: A Local Secret?
  47. Karrrazy, Man: Kublai Khan Crazy Mongolian Stir Fry
  48. VooDoo BBQ & Grill: Their HooDoo’s Pretty Good, Actually
  49. My Fit Foods: Tasty, Healthy Food, Ready in a Flash
  50. Chang Thai, Our Family’s New Favorite
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  52. Playing With Your Food (and Your Mom Would Approve): Shabu Hot Pot & Noodle Bar
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