By Joshua Jones and Steve Finau
Rio Grande Café feels like home. The familiar tunes on the jukebox, serene patio, mysterious taco lady (spoiler alert — in case you want to figure her out for yourself after a few Slurpee margaritas — “Chick-In-Taco”) and electric train ever-hovering overhead — it’s very comfortable. When we first moved to Salt Lake City, it was a gay staple on Friday nights. The bartenders loosened us all up for the nearby clubs with mysteriously-powerful margaritas.
However, in the last few years, it has kind-of been forgotten by the LGBTQ community, and a Rio Grande Café deathwatch had been ticking. Largely due to one factor — the city and county’s ongoing inability to manage the rampant drug culture around the homeless services facilities in the Rio Grande neighborhood. The restaurant languished while Iggy’s, Vivance, Dojo, and Ekamai disappeared, leaving the rest in critical condition.
When The Salt Lake Tribune announced that longtime owner, Pete Henderson was closing the restaurant in March, things didn’t look good for the venerable restaurant. Luckily, Byron Lovell and Brian O’Meara, owners of the Dodo and Porcupine restaurants swooped in to rescue the place. A month-long closing for a deep-deep clean removed the rotating art gallery (to be edited and revived); lovingly restored the neon signs; and updated the kitchen.
Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Yes.
Now, let’s remember, Rio Grande Café’s cuisine was always, and continues to be, Mexican food in the most comfortable-sense of the word. It is not Red Iguana — nor are their knives pointed in that direction. There is much more cheese, sour cream, and a warm, welcoming service. Moreover, the salsa and guacamole are tremendous, and the margaritas are intoxicating. Just like they should be, right?
A recent trip found that two house margaritas over several songs of Jimmy Buffett, Sinatra, and Eric Clapton on the jukebox made us perfectly happy and still able to drive home. Halibut tacos, one lightly breaded and fried, and one grilled were straight-out-of Santa Monica with a nice crunch of cabbage. The fajitas had a nice char to the vegetables with homemade tortillas and nicely seasoned, moist chicken.
Cheese enchiladas smothered in pork chile verde is renowned, but also off-menu (be a rock star and order it). Other favorites include the vegetable enchiladas and the pollo cilantro. Sit at the historic counter and enjoy the service of Drew, another entrée to feast your eyes upon (also off menu).
Rio Grande Cafe
270 S Rio Grande St
Salt Lake City