The first of a Texas chain to open in South Florida, this rather odd, post-mod cantina is located just off popular dining destination 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale. But its position on a side street, set back from the road and sandwiched between an Outback Steakhouse and a neon-zapped link of a hotel chain, makes it relatively hard to find, especially for a restaurant this size. At 450 seats, attached to a generous parking lot and boasting two-story ceilings, Cafe del Rio is like an elephant hiding from a mouse behind a peanut -- obvious only if you know what you're supposed to see.
Apparently, you're meant not only to give a once-over to the statue of a braided Native American hoisting a fresh-killed deer over his shoulders, posted at the door like a cigar-store Indian, but you're welcome to draw conclusions from it. What those assumptions might be, I would imagine, depend upon your brand of political correctness. Let's just say that I didn't automatically receive a mental picture of yummy tacos. But I'm willing to allow that some diners, somewhere, might automatically connect moccasins with steak fajitas -- especially if you take a look at the emblem while you exit.
Once in the foyer, animatronic figurines and Epcot-suggestive décor make Cafe del Rio look more like a theme park than a restaurant. You can almost picture a mariachi band marching down the hallway. Until you turn into the dining room, that is. The black-and-chrome bistro tables and chairs almost directly contradict the Tex-Mex-ness of the place and would be more at home in an upscale diner.
The good news is that families and children are welcome -- we brought a six-week-old baby with us, and the hostess knew enough to turn over a high chair so we could balance the infant's car seat on it. The bad news is that the dining area is so cavernous, any little squawk is amplified into a screech; you might want to leave the colicky ones with a sitter -- but only if you truly crave some high-caloric intake that can't be delivered from the freezer section at Publix or a drive-through Taco Bell. A few gimmicks do distinguish the offerings here, like the free soft-serve ice cream machine to which you are ushered after dinner. Or the squeeze bottles, labeled "butter," that are on the table. The idea, I surmised, was that the butter is for greasing up some tortillas; one of my favorite restaurants, in Irvine, California, offered homemade tortillas laced with sweet cream butter as a complement. The problem at Cafe del Rio, though, was two-fold: No tortillas were ever delivered to the table, and the butter was equivalent to runny, room-temperature Parkay. Porque?
But in the end, many of the items here taste no different from those at similar restaurants, including the long-running Carlos & Pepe's around the corner. And for the most part, they were so loaded with sour cream and cheese the color and texture of processed Whiz that gall bladders stall at the very sight of them.
Flavor-wise, dishes such as the tamales, steamed cornmeal smothered under a ladle or two of chili con queso, presented nutty versus spicy counterpoints. Cheese, chicken, spinach, or crabmeat enchiladas can also be satisfying, since they taste freshly made and the fillings are generous. Partner them with mountainous scoops of the spice-dusted Mexican rice and refried beans and add a handful of crisp tortilla chips that arrive with a piquant salsa at the beginning of the meal and you can get out the door with a dinner total of maybe $12-$15 bucks per person. Not to mention a couple of takeout boxes and lunch for the next day.
Just beware when it comes to more upscale offerings, which range up to $17. The shrimp in the camarones alambres, a sauté of Gulf shrimp, zucchini, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, were on the verge of spoilage. Fortunately, the iodine element in the shrimp hadn't tainted the vegetables, which had a bit of a fajita-type presence on the plate and were pleasant rolled up with rice and beans in accompanying flour tortillas. A side dish of Mexican butter -- a melted version of the Porque, spiked with jalapeño peppers and onions -- was helpful as a moistening condiment, though it couldn't much help the "Spanish Cay" catch of the day. That mahi-mahi fillet was nearly as old as the crustaceans, tough and gray as a well-worn gym sock. A crabmeat enchilada that came on the plate was more of a saving grace than a garnish, but at least it was enough to fill a gap.
In fact, combination plates may prove the best compromise here. On the platillo del rio, the bare-bones barbecued ribs were hardly impressive for anyone but canines of a certain fortitude. But the soft corn taco stuffed with marinated fajita beef and the sour cream-chicken enchilada, both of which had vibrant flavors, made the assortment worth the investment.
Not so the steak tampiqueña, which was charbroiled and served over a mattress of onions and bell peppers. Although the menu bills it as USDA "choice," the meat was chewy enough to render it "select," a bottom-of-the-pyramid category no restaurant ever admits to buying. And yes, you can interpret that to mean that many restaurants offering "prime" are actually serving "choice." The ever-present Mexican butter, along with pico de gallo, was overkill here, and while a scoop of guacamole wasn't particularly potent, a crunchy beef taco helped round out the meal.
Just don't expect dessert to do the same. Aside from the free ice cream, Cafe del Rio offers only fried tortillas dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Finally, a vehicle for the squeeze bottle of margarine. But the servers don't seem to know too much about selling it to interested customers; we had to press for anything sweet that didn't have dairy in it. In fact, service in general wasn't extremely sharp -- our waitress brought us chili con carne instead of the chili con queso we ordered; a main-course portion of tamales as opposed to the appetizer size; and extra margaritas that nobody had requested. But at least we eventually came up with a reason for the Indian-deer statue: He's there to tell patrons that the white man still doesn't know what he's doing.