Cafe Rio A Waste in Every Sense of the Definition

I knew it. I knew I shouldn't have wasted my precious time with Cafe Rio, the Utah-based chain of vaguely Tex-Mex, vaguely New Mexican, vaguely Cal-Mex restaurants that opened its first Orange County outpost in Costa Mesa earlier this year. I see it almost every week, on my trips to Avanti Cafe just a couple of doors down. But I had to try–if only for the research for my book.

What a waste. What a waste of an opportunity, a waste of resources, a waste of flavor and my precious time. I haven't been this angry after eating at a restaurant since the time I got food poisoning at [stricken by the Weekly's lawyers lest Gustavo get us a libel suit]. I want my $10 back for a middling, messy burrito and a tiny horchata. I want back that half-hour of my life, the calories I could've put to better use but which will now just cut a couple of minutes off my life without a proper payoff.

What a waste. But I guess I should explain myself.

The Cafe Rio menu works like a Mission-style burrito place that ripped off Chipotle's idea to mainstream the meal, then decided to add on a couple more items under the appeal of freshly made, massive flour tortillas. You get in line, order what you want, and see everything made in front of you. If you make some requests, everyone yells in unison ala Chick-fil-A–blech.

The problem started when they forgot my burrito–wait, scratch that. The problem started when they put my burrito in a tin-foil plate. I wondered why they did that–it's because the burrito explodes under its own weight. Cafe Rio forgot that people want to eat burritos because they miraculously keep their structure–sometimes held back by tightly wrapped foil, but usually because a master burrito wrapper knows how to properly fold the tortilla (as someone who has failed miserably to do such a seemingly simple task for 20 years, I can attest to the origami-like skill needed to make sure a burrito doesn't disintegrate). I just took one bite into my burrito before the contents began seeping onto the plate–if I wanted a combo plate, I'da gone down the street to Mi Casa. A properly wrapped burrito could hold back the Mississippi; this one couldn't hold back a bean, literally.

After making my burrito, a worker passed it along to someone else, who'd pass it along to someone else, who'd pass it along to someone else–again, a ripoff of the San Francisco Fordian approach to their burritos. But we all know what happens to bureaucracies, and my burrito was forgotten for a good three minutes by one of the cogs in the human machine. I didn't say a thing because I wanted to see how long it would take for the worker to remember it. He never did; he finally saw my exasperated face and asked if I wanted to order.

The burrito was big, but it had no flavor at all–none. Steak strips weren't cooked enough; pinto beans, bland. Their cilantro-lime rice had neither cilantro nor lime under- or overtones, and each grain was dry. I asked for the spiciest salsa they had, and it burned with about as much intensity as paste. The flour tortilla, while fresh, wasn't cooked long enough to justify the existence of flour tortillas. Even worse, even the salsa had no flavor. A great salsa doesn't always have to burn, but it should feature some redeeming value–and Cafe Rio's salsa had none. I had to drown the burrito in Cholula to try and desperately redeem my time. Oh, and a small cup of chalky horchata for $2? A disgrace.

The entire meal ran $10, which is the most I've felt ripped off since trying Javier's. The only good thing that came out of this meal is that I couldn't help but to remember Bob Dylan's “Don't Think Twice, It's Alright,” that classic dismissal of a trifling relationship that masks hurt. I was hurt by Cafe Rio–it was disappointing, and the crowds! How can people enjoy such a waste. Eh, I'll let Johnny take it from here…

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