Of Colorado’s six Rio Grande Mexican Restaurants, five are on the Front Range and one is in Steamboat Springs. The Boulder location is a short walk from our house, which is good considering the potency of their famous margaritas. I only order one. My husband sometimes has one and a beer. But three is the max for anyone. Each customer from skinny-minnie young women to linebacker-size guys is limited to just three. I have often said that no one who starts with a marg really knows what the Rio’s food is like, but everyone likes it — thanks to tequila.
Founded in Fort Collins in 1986, the Rio opened in Boulder not long after that and alighted in a couple of downtown locations before roosting at 11th and Walnut. The cavernous space is happily broken up into a big, loud bar to the left of the side-street entrance, a quieter but still lively L-shaped dining room to the right, beyond that a covered porchhalf with overhead doors that can be pulled up in good weather and beyond that, a small strip of seats along the Walnut Street sidewalk. And there’s rooftop seating too with great views.
My husband and a friend or sometimes two used to make a ”Rio Run” every few weeks, and occasionally I’d tag along too. Chips and salsa, chile con queso, usually combo platters for the guys and fajitas or perhaps a fish taco for me were our routine. One of the regulars now lives in Wisconsin, so the Rio dropped from our routine. When the weather started to warm up, my husband and I made a Rio Run of our own.
The menu has been tweaked over the years but has fundamentally the same, which is a hallmark of reliability. Good, fresh versions of standard dishes prevail, including meatless options in all categories. Chile con queso aside, the food always seems lighter and fresher than most Mexican restaurants — maybe because they don’t drown everything in sauce and blanket it with melted cheese, and also because instead of iceberg lettuce they use romaine and they seem to find fairly tasty tomatoes for the shredded lettuce/chopped tomato duo that is de rigeur at most Mexican/Tex-Mex eateries. We took one of the sidewalk tables, enjoying the warm air and the passing parade, and slipped into our Rio Run routine by starting with margaritas.
Price check: At dinner, sharable appetizers, $6.95-$9.59; entrees, mostly $.7.95-$12.95; the online menu is parsed into several subcategories, which I didn’t get into here.