Steve Stanley worked a cross section of Mexican/Southwestern restaurants in the lower half of Texas for nearly 30 years while journeying to Hatch, N.M., to select his chilies for the season. About a year ago, Stanley returned to his wife's hometown in the southwest of Utah, St. George, and opened his own chili dispensary, Cafe Rio.
With a Dixie spot opposite the Red Cliffs Mall and a recent Provo expansion on University Parkway, Stanley pushes those peppers and all their accompaniments from spots that look like an old-fashioned Mexican marketplace or a street scene from "The Mask of Zorro." Vividly colored tables, chairs and walls invite patrons of all ages and vocations (from ties to coveralls) to the appealing cafeteria-style service.With every ingredient in view, it's hard not to become absorbed in the process as you observe a tortilla maker shaping and baking three kinds of tortillas. Tidy bins ahead contain all the fixin's for the basic menu offerings: burritos, enchiladas and tacos, then a group of salads as alternatives to the heavier fare. All the ingredients are freshly prepared every day and really make you wonder if Stanley tends a graden or a barnyard out back.
Our sampling included the Taco Special of the day, a choice of shredded beef, smoked chicken or shredded pork barbacoa, wrapped in a chewy flour tortilla and accompanied by punchy green chili rice and a choice of black or pinto beans, plus a beverage ($4.50). The same tasty, perfectly seasoned side dishes stuff the plump burritos ($3.95-$5.95), then complete the fill with a variety of meat or vegetable preparations. Enchiladas ($3.95 for one, $5.95 for two) feature crispy corn tortillas stuffed with rice, choice of beans and a selection of meat fillings, like the smoked chicken tomatillo, a completely satisfying, pungent blend of ingredients.
Dessert, often overlooked on the Mexican menu, also provides an interesting group of options, including Tres Leches, a rich, custard-cake combination ($2.95, also available in chocolate) and Yo-landa's Fresh Lime Pie ($2.75), a sweet-tart conclusion to a meal.
Whether you're a chili pro like Steve Stanley or a gringo with a tortilla love affair, know that Mr. Stanley and his family compile a collection of chili-inspired offerings that could compete with the best in the land, never mind they originate under a galvanized awning, are served cafeteria-style on a disposable aluminum plate and fall within the budget of any starving student. Enjoy the fiesta at Cafe Rio!
RATING: * * * *
Cafe Rio, 2250 North University Parkway, Provo, 801-375-5133, and 245 N. Redcliffs Drive, St. George, 435-688-0606. Hours: Mon-day-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday. Payment: Checks, MasterCard and Visa.