Soulless Food at Cafe Rio Mexican Grill in Point Loma

by on March 16, 2018 · 6 comments

in Ocean Beach

Cafe Rio Mexican Grill
3309 Rosecrans
Loma Square

Point Loma

OBites Visits Cafe Rio for Promise of New Mexico Cuisine

by Bob Edwards

Ever since my first visits to Albuquerque and the Four Corners region, I’ve been in love with New Mexican cuisine. The delicious chile verde (green chili) sauce, made from Hatch or other New Mexican chile peppers is quite unlike the chile verde you find in most California Mexican food. It’s silky smooth and the taste of the roasted chiles has incredible depth.

The sauce is fantastic with enchiladas and can also be used in a stew with vegetables, rice, beans, and usually chicken or pork. The New Mexican red chile sauce, made from dried chile pods, is also a delicious treat and goes great on enchiladas or as a base for posole, the hominy stew available at most restaurants in the region.

When I heard that there was a new restaurant, Cafe Rio Mexican Grill, that serves food inspired by the cuisine of “the Rio Grande region, Southern Texas, and New Mexico”, I knew I had to give it a try. Cafe Rio opened in January 2018 in the Loma Square shopping center at Midway and Rosecrans, between Sprouts and Jamba Juice.

After a little online research, I discovered that Cafe Rio is a “fast casual chain restaurant” like Chipotle. It was founded in St. George, Utah and it’s a copycat of the Chipotle model. You get in line and when you make it to the counter a friendly worker takes your order and assembles your burrito, taco, salad, or enchilada per your preference, right in front of you. Like Chipotle there are different proteins to choose from (shredded or grilled chicken, pork barbacoa, grilled steak, pork chile verde, and others). There are also sides such as black or pinto beans, cilantro lime rice, and assorted veggies and other add-ons you can have stuffed into your entrée choice.

Unfortunately, like Chipotle, the dining experience at Cafe Rio is soulless and plastic with a totally corporate vibe. Do you want to know how I really feel?  Read on.

Fresh Tortillas–the highpoint. All photos by Bob Edwards

The restaurant is brightly lit and decorated in a contemporary style that features lots of tile and stainless steel. Insipid pop music plays, fortunately at a low volume that allows easy conversation.  Once I got to the head of the line, I saw a rotating iron comal or tortilla grill, a good sign. One of the employees was slapping freshly made flour and corn tortillas on the grill where they quickly cooked. The tortillas smelled and tasted delicious and were the high point of our Cafe Rio experience.

I ordered 2 shredded chicken enchiladas with half spicy red and half medium green chile sauces ($9.29). The enchiladas came with rice and black or pinto beans. I asked for some sour cream and it was provided with an upcharge ($.59). The green chile sauce had separated a bit and had an oily quality with none of the creamy smoothness I’m used to in New Mexican chile verde.

Though they say that none of their food is premade, the red sauce tasted like the canned La Victoria enchilada sauce that I occasionally use when I’m pressed for time in my home kitchen, not like an authentic sauce made from rehydrated dried red chiles which is pressed through a sieve to remove the skins and then cooked down to a yummy red essence. The enchiladas and all the entrée items are for some reason served in aluminum “to go” containers which allow the food to quickly cool down to room temperature. When you’re done with your meal, all that aluminum goes into the trash with your paper and food garbage as there are no separate recycling bins in the restaurant.

A made to order taco

One of my companions had two tacos with rice and beans (base price $9.29).  She chose grilled chicken and grilled steak and we discovered that these two proteins also had an upcharge (an extra $.50 for the chicken and $.75 for the steak)  Each of the meats was a little dry and bland. The accompanying salsas were OK but not spectacular.

During our meal, the workers would  chant in unison when a new customer ordered nachos or a quesadilla. It must be a team building exercise or perhaps an effort to convince the customers that they’re in an exciting, happening place. For me it was a flashback to Farrell’s Ice Cream back in the day, only at Farrell’s the wait staff actually seemed to be into their singing and running around and it was all about someone celebrating a birthday or finishing a giant “Zoo Sundae”, not about mumbling a tribute to a quasi-Mexican snack.

And there was no posole on the menu. Bummer. We left Cafe Rio totally underwhelmed.

The Association of Food Journalists, of which I am not a member, suggests multiple visits from a food critic before providing a negative review, so I returned a few days later. That visit was even more disappointing.

My companion ordered tacos and I thought I’d try the enchiladas again. I noticed the counter person assembling the items was using flour tortillas. I said to him, “We’d prefer corn tortillas, please”. “Sorry, we’re out of corn tortillas”, he replied. That’s weird, I thought. I cancelled the enchilada order as I consider corn tortillas to be essential in that dish. They were also out of the “fire grilled steak” so we tried the tacos made with flour tortillas and pork barbacoa. The barbacoa turned out to be a much too sweet pulled pork that was not thoroughly drained when the tacos were assembled.

After we finished the tacos, I walked back up to the counter to see if they had started making some corn tortillas. Nope. A manager saw me looking and asked me what was up. I asked him if they often ran out of corn tortillas. He said,

“No, we’re famous for our tortillas. I’m very sorry. The corn tortilla expert (!) was a no show today and no one else knows how to make the masa (corn tortilla dough).”

I wanted to point out to him that we were next door to Sprouts Market where he could probably find all the corn tortillas he might need, but at that point I had lost enthusiasm. To make up for the tortilla situation, he kindly offered a free meal on our next visit but I don’t think I’ll be going back.

$2 worth of guacamole on the left, free salsa on the right

At Cafe Rio, the “New Mexican-inspired” food is inauthentic and the menu is limited (no posole, no mole, no tamales, no al pastor, no carnitas, no shrimp, no machaca, etc.). There are many Mexican restaurants in the beach area that offer better food with many more selections at a lower price. And that’s for a sit down meal WITH table service. Counter service taquerias are even cheaper.

Locally owned restaurants and even some of the smaller chains usually have individuality and character, not a corporate cookie cutter vibe. I can understand why some people patronize Chipotle, Denny’s, Cafe Rio and other giant restaurant chains.  At a corporate place they can eat familiar food with no challenging surprises and it’s the same food whether they’re eating in San Diego or Seattle or any place in between. Some people find that comforting, I guess. Every dish has been sampled by focus groups so management can find out what the average consumer likes best and weed out anything unconventional about a dish that might alienate a potential customer. Then the restaurant can crank out the same average dishes for average people, like on an assembly line. You end up with uninspired, lowest common denominator food. That’s not what I look for in a restaurant.

When I got home, I reviewed my receipt and discovered there was a $1.99 charge for the 2 ounce side of quacamole that I had ordered for my tacos. Really? For a tiny cup of quac? Now I know I won’t be going back.

It doesn’t look I’ll be eating any authentic New Mexican food until my next trip to Albuquerque. In the meantime, if anyone knows where I can get my posole fix in San Diego, I would appreciate a heads up.  I’ll still be looking and hoping!

Cafe Rio is located at 3309 Rosecrans. Plentiful parking is available. The restaurant is open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 AM to 10 PM and Sunday from 11 AM to 10 PM.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

ZZ March 16, 2018 at 1:09 pm

JV’s on Morena is a 6 minute drive from OB and has posole. I’d call ahead to be sure, some soups they only make certain days. Oh and the drive is all on Sea World Drive, so a 6 minute and pretty drive, maybe 12 minutes during rush hour.

I am not surprised a chain mexican restaurant based in Utah is no good. The shocking part of the review is you said you like Chipotle.

JV’s is probably the best overall Mexican place within a short drive of OB, with prices similar to Roberto’s (yuck) but quality similar to sit-down places. It is also a nice place to eat, casual and so much seating you have a bit of space and privacy if you want it. Interesting/diverse people watching too. And a really big and well stocked salsa bar.

I can’t promise you they never nickel and dime you with extra charges like Cafe Rio did, but I don’t remember it ever happening in the 30 or more times I’ve been there.


David Scott March 17, 2018 at 9:11 am

I love Posole! I do you hope they are using real New Mexico Chile…it is far superior in quality. Here is a link to a great posole recipe:


Oblique March 17, 2018 at 12:13 pm

Last year during chili season, folks from Hatch, New Mexico were roasting chilies for over a month at Little Italy’s farmers market. Yep I bought loads of them and froze them. There is nothing better. Real green chili done right is nothing short of sublime….


Toolpusher March 17, 2018 at 8:16 pm

I like Tony’s on Rosecrans (formally Santana’s and a bunch of other silly names in between). Despite the name changes and apparent ownership drama, which included having essentially the same restaurant only a block away for a while, is still very good and cheap. For a sit-down restaurant experience, I still like Miguel’s (the original Point Loma location of course). Thanks for the review of Cafe Rio, confirmed everything I would think a Chipolte knock-off from Utah would be.


Dave March 18, 2018 at 10:53 pm

Eh, FWIW I’m calling this a much improved version of Chipotle – the food is passable if not exciting, but the fresh tortillas (nice and thick like at Tommy’s) move Cafe Rio from “meh” into passable, so far as I’m concerned.

Is it as good as a legit SD taco shop? No, but neither is pretty much anywhere beach-adjacent if you grew up in East County or even in Southeast…I like JV’s for sure, but instead of cotija cheese their carne asada chips have Cheez Whiz.


Ramm March 19, 2018 at 6:54 pm

I have just lately started reading your fine paper, and I am Really Stoked to find a Food Critic that still Critiques. So many critics seem fearful to be even neutral about restaurants they didn’t like. As I also into a good green chili sauce I definitely won’t go there especially because there’s enough Corp Crap Food out there. Also I was one of “The Zoo” runners back in the 80’s at Farrell’s in the UTC Mall. We always had fun doing it because there was a chance we could mess up and send Ice Cream everywhere!


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