I've been holding out on reviewing Cafe Rio for a long time.

It's the contrarian in me, because for a couple of years, it was one of the places people most often asked me if I'd reviewed — and then acted completely flabbergasted when I said no.

Also, when Cafe Rio opened near my home, it instantly became very irritating to visit my favorite video store next door because there were never any parking spaces.

The presence of all those thronging customers should have told me something, but what can I say? I'm stubborn.

But at long last, I gave in. Cafe Rio deserves space in this column solely for being one of the forerunners of the giant gourmet burrito trend in restaurants, which has produced so many eateries it's hard to go more than a few blocks in the Salt Lake Valley without running into one.

And it's a nice specimen of its genre, with an appealing dining space, wide-open and clean cooking spaces and tasty food.

Customers' first sight of the kitchen is a huge round griddle with fresh tortillas cooking on it, sending up a sweetish, floury smell. I got a side order of warm tortillas just so we could gobble down a few by themselves.

Not that you'll need sides at Cafe Rio, where portions are very generous, though I thought they stopped short of the ridiculous excess you find at some restaurants. Most entrees come with green chile rice and pinto or black beans on the side, except the burritos, which have 'em rolled up in the tortilla with the other fixings.

My husband had the "usual" that he orders when lunching with the guys at work: the pork barbacoa burrito, served enchilada style — what he and the boys call "manning up." The burrito, nearly 3 inches thick and completely filling the foil tray in which it was served, contained sweet, tender, pulled pork, rice, beans and cheese, topped with flavorful red sauce.

Three of our kids shared a beef quesadilla, simply put together with steak and a blend of cheeses, with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream and a fresh and pure guacamole on the side. The quesadilla itself was more than enough for the three kids, though I wished I'd ordered more of the creamy beans and mild rice for them, as the portions that came with their meal were pretty skimpy.

Our other daughter had the delicious chicken tortilla soup, nicely seasoned chicken broth chunky with shredded chicken, pico de gallo, crispy tortilla strips and cheese, with a lime on top for an extra squirt of flavor.

I had the special, a single mahi mahi taco with shredded cabbage, cilantro, lime, pico de gallo and tomatillo dressing. The mahi mahi was beautifully seasoned, but both it and the cabbage were a little dry, making me wish for more of the tangy, jade-green tomatillo dressing.

For dessert, I had the tres leches, a little firm, spongy cake soaked in sweetened condensed milk and topped with sliced strawberries and cream. My husband, who normally doesn't like flan, was very taken indeed with Cafe Rio's chocolate cheese flan, lightly sweet and topped with more berries.

Appetizers $2.50-$4.50, salads $6.50-$7.95, entrees $4.95-$8.95, specials about $5.95-$8.95, sides 50 cents-$1.95, desserts $3.50.

Cafe Rio

Rating: ***

Where: 6585 S. Park Centre Drive, plus 16 other Utah locations from Logan to St. George

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; closed Sunday

Payment: Major credit cards accepted; no checks

Phone: 562-4431

Wheelchair access: Easy, though navigating through the long line could be tricky

Also: Customer loyalty program awards a free meal for every 10 meals bought; if you earn one, expect to hear "free meal!" shouted in a festive manner by the staff.


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