Dining out: Rubio's

Published: Friday, Feb. 13 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Once in a while, I go "off" a certain food, and occasionally even a certain type of restaurant.

I just don't feel like eating at that kind of place, usually for a lot of reasons. And in the past year or so, I've been "off" the dozens of "fresh Mex" restaurants that have sprung up like mushrooms along the Wasatch Front.

You know the kind: some kind of theme, big burritos, specialties such as shrimp or fish tacos, and salads or "bowls" thrown in to make things interesting.

I bet I've reviewed a half-dozen and eaten at more. I suppose I just got sick of them, because for a while, I never wanted to go to one unless it was for an "official" visit.

Turns out my timing was bad. Just as I'm getting back into the Mexican thing, some of my favorites are closing.

I said goodbye to Cilantro's on Fort Union a couple of months ago, and I still miss their super-fresh food. Cilantro's was a great little locally owned place, the kind that diminishes a community when it closes.

Some of the only places left are the larger chains, but luckily, many of them serve up great food. Utah's own Cafe Rio is one, and Rubio's is another.

This California-based chain has its roots in the beach food of Baja, Calif., and its fish tacos are the foundation of the Rubio's menu.

But luckily for people like my husband, who believes the words "fish" and "taco" should never be uttered together, there's a lot more to Rubio's these days.

The menu is unified, however, by fresh ingredients and a certain piquant originality of flavor.

My husband, always a fan of what we call "burritos the size of your head," ordered the "big burrito especial" with grilled steak. This particular burrito was big, all right, but not frighteningly so. It was more than enough to fill him up with its big house-made tortilla filled with tender steak, guacamole, black beans, rice, sour cream, salsa fresca and a subtle chipotle dressing.

I had the grilled grande bowl, which again demonstrated the subtle difference between enough and too much as regards portion size.

A base of cabbage provided crunch and juiciness to this appealing mixture of grilled chicken, guacamole, black beans, jack and Cheddar cheeses, rice, salsa fresca and more of that chipotle dressing.

It was the kind of dish that encourages diners to experiment with different flavor combinations, all of them invigorating.

We also tried the super-crisp house-made tortilla chips dipped in the variety of fresh salsas Rubio's offers.

The standard mild salsa was just fine, as was the verde, but my favorites were the dark, smoky chipotle salsa and the hot variety, which was tangy and spicy with just a breath of sweet.

Our son had the kid's meal of two crisp taquitos filled with ground chicken and cotija cheese, plus a cup of mild, moist rice. He also loved the warm churro (or, as he called it, the "sugar") that came with his meal.

The food was good, but what really put Rubio's over the top for me was the excellent service. A gracious and attentive lady roamed the dining room during the lunch rush, making sure diners had anything they needed, and the counter staff members were brisk and efficient.

Burritos and tacos $2.50-$7.30, taco plates and "favorites" $4.30-$9.25, salads and bowls $6.50-$6.80, sides 50 cents-$3.50, kids' meals $4.65, desserts $1.40-$1.60.

Rubio's

Rating: ★★★

Where: 358 S. 700 East

Hours: Monday-Thursday 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Sunday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Phone: 363-0563

Wheelchair access: Easy

Web: www.rubios.com

Also: catering available

Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret News. E-mail: skratz@desnews.com

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