I know Bakersfield is famous for its long lines when new restaurants open, but the reception for Cafe Rio was ridiculous. On our visits they had to keep the lines outside in order to comply with fire regulations.
The skinny on this place is it’s a Utah-based chain that takes Chipotle’s concepts and adds some interesting twists. Really interesting. One that I think is amazing is free niña quesadillas for children 6 and under. Free. Talk about building that customer base in a clever way. Child grows up dining there with mom and dad, getting a cheesy creation made with a house made tortilla. Forget the McDonald playgrounds. This is really gonna build a base.
This was my first visit to Cafe Rio, but apparently it’s the Beehive State's version of In-N-Out as we noted a few Utah plates in the crowded parking lot and everyone in the early crowd seemed to know what to order. You choose from five different meats or a vegetarian version of six different entrees: burrito, salad, enchiladas, tacos, quesadilla or tostada. We tried four of the meats on our visits: sweet pork barbacoa, chile roast beef, fire-grilled chicken breast and fire-grilled steak, getting a tostada ($7.49), tacos ($8.99), burrito ($9.29) and quesadilla ($9.29).
My companion later wished she’d gotten a salad as they put it underneath one of the house-made flour tortillas, which are a real plus at Cafe Rio. As you enter the cafeteria line to order your food, you see a woman flattening the tortillas and grilling them on a rolling hot plate, four at a time. It’s mesmerizing in its own way.
This column’s gonna be filled with Chipotle comparisons because it’s such a similar place. I found it interesting that the giant chain prices each item based on the protein choice, but Cafe Rio goes right to what you’re ordering.
The food is just not as spicy as what Chipotle offers, so be prepared for that. For example, my companion always orders a burrito with the spicy sauce, which is substantial. Here she got her burrito with the same, but it was far more restrained. The pork was a lot sweeter than the more conventional carnitas served at Chipotle. The menu warned that the steak I received in my quesadilla would be cooked medium rare, which surprised me, but after the quesadilla-warming process it was medium well and certainly not a health issue. The roast beef impressed my companion as having a real pot roast taste, though it was shredded and tender. The chicken breast was the best of the meats that we sampled, quite comparable to the Chipotle product in a lot of ways, though my companion thought it was presented a bit watery. The black beans are very impressive with a lingering smoky flavor that was much more involving than Chipotle's blander version.
There’s more. Cafe Rio offers two desserts: tres leches cake and fresh lime pie. The lime pie was the best, with a nice crumb crust. The tres leches was not at that level, maybe because I missed the cinnamon that I expect with such a wonderful dairy treat. They also have custom-made drinks including a mint limeade that I can’t wait to drink on a hot Bakersfield summer day. There are six Torani syrup containers near the beverage area if you want to create your own original creation. You will not struggle to find sugar sources at this restaurant.
And Cafe Rio is bold enough to put their own spin on standards. The guacamole looked as if it was mixed with the tomato salsa. Didn’t see the preparation, but that was my impression.
The decor was described by my companion as homey industrial, with what looks like laminated wood shiplap on the high end of the walls, two flat-screens televisions imbedded in the walls tuned to commercials touting the sourcing of the agricultural product they serve and a fascinating display of real lemons and limes above the cafeteria line. The fruit changes on a daily basis. They aren’t just for decoration. When we went back a second day, some of the display boxes were empty while others had different produce in them. I’m also impressed by how many people they have working in the kitchen that you can see behind the line. I know everyone’s working hard but they use a lot of employees to keep this line moving. Even with the wait, we had our food in less than a half-hour, and there are employees stationed at various points in the line with menu cards and advice on how to use the app (which is highly recommended for discounts). Ordering food here and not using it seems about as fiscally imprudent as buying a pizza without a coupon.
It will be really interesting to see if more Cafe Rios open in the next couple of years, and how traffic at this corner will change once the four-story hotel behind it and Sully’s opens up. Blaze Pizza is already drawing a strong crowd, too.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.