Rio Grande proves local Tex Mex is always best!

Rio Grande in PflugervilleIt seems like my best restaurant discoveries are coming more and more in the form of happy accidents. Take Rio Grande in Pflugerville.

This time, it was a last-minute invitation to join with some people from a Meetup group. I never heard of the Rio Grande Tex Mex, but hey, have GPS, will travel. So off we went.

I have to be honest…I didn’t have high hopes. The name sounded like yet another chain Tex-Mex, with boring ingredients and so-so salsa. Boy, was I wrong!

First of all there was the salsa. This one had a real kick! And the chips were fresh and crisp.  It was all I could do to not eat more of them. But the vegetarian nachos were calling out to me from the menu, so I wanted to save my imaginary “chip allowance”  for my meal. (Imaginary, because I have yet to stick to it!)

In this case, thank goodness I did keep my chip indulgence low, because what arrived was a HUGE plate of giant chips, decked out with tons of vegetables, cheese, black beans and more of that amazing salsa…and a great big pile of jalapeno that warmed my capsaicin loving heart. On the side, was an even bigger pile of guacamole and another of sour cream.

I usually eat pretty low-fat, and in small quantities, but I knew this was going to be an exception. Who cares if it was all absolutely terrible for my waistline — my taste buds won out, and I feasted!

I’m not sure if I would like to claim that I ate the whole thing…that would have been quite an accomplishment for me. But the truth is, everyone around me wanted a taste, so I had some much appreciated help in clearing that plate. No, really!  I didn’t eat it all!

The deliciousness didn’t stop with my nachos. My meat-eating partner-in-crime , Sir Lancelot, ordered Morlianas, a chicken enchiladas dish served with freshly sautéed mushrooms, zucchini, and bell peppers and queso fresco. Let me just say that there was not a speck left on his plate when the waitress returned to clear the table — and he had no help in cleaning that plate!

After we ate, I did some research on the Rio Grande Tex-Mex. It’s a local place with two locations (one in Hutto and the one we went to in Pflugerville), owned by native Texans Mario Maldonado and his wife Raquel Cisneros. It seems the two have a reputation for excellence in local restaurants  — no wonder this didn’t taste like chain restaurant food.

The local pride also showed in the service. Our glasses never emptied…they were refilled as soon as they reached half full. And when there was a slight delay in the kitchen for one dish, our waitress told us immediately, and offered her apologies. I love restaurants where it feels like you’re a guest instead of a customer — and Rio Grande definitely provided that experience.

I can’t wait to go back…just read a review that they have an awesome breakfast, too. I’ll have to check that out next.  Just let me run a 5K or two first…I don’t want to regret a single bite!

There’s a patio which would be great for a date night, and a good kids’ menu, too.

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More info on Rio Grande:

15821 Central Commerce Dr
Pflugerville, TX 78660
(512) 252-1800

Monday – Thursday 11:00a – 9:30p
Friday 11:00a – 10:30p
Saturday 9:00a – 10:30p
Sunday 9:00a – 9:00p
Reservations: Yes
WiFi: No
Dog-friendly: No
Website: Rio Grande Tex Mex

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Breakfast Tacos, Hippie Church meet at Maria’s Taco Express

Maria Taco Express June 2012

I kept hearing people talking about Austin’s “Hippie Church” and imagined some sort of New Age gathering. I had no idea breakfast tacos were involved, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about the vibe.  Ten minutes on a Sunday morning at Maria’s Taco Express and I discovered exactly what they meant.

The music? A mixture of amazing blues and gospel, with a classic rock edge.  The people? Lots of people who were probably around when “hippies” were something new and controversial.  The food?  Big servings of classic homemade Tex-Mex served on a mixture of plastic and wood picnic tables.

And the setting?  Pure Austin unique.  Part dive bar feel, part old west/old Mexico theme (don’t miss the old “village” down the outside wall!), part someone’s backyard patio.

There’s no table service at Maria’s and the line to order is long, but please don’t let that keep you away.  You’d miss the chance to dance to blues with some of Austin’s most unique residents. You’d miss some truly amazing tacos, chicken stew and other Maria’s favorites. And you’d miss sitting in a plastic patio chair and listening to some of the very best gospel and blues for no cost beyond your breakfast.  (Of course, the tip jar beckons, so do contribute generously!)

Space downstairs near the live music is limited, so get there early (the music starts at noon) or be prepared to share a table with some of the other friendly diners (we have, and it’s fun!). There’s more seating upstairs (super hot in summer!) and indoors.

Maria’s is open all week, but so far it’s the Sunday Hippie Church that’s drawn us in again and again.  Once we finally do check it out on another day, I’ll update this review.

Pets are welcome on the patio, although it’s crowded so make sure they’re very well-behaved! Prices are low, so this a great place to go with little kids — there’s lots to choose from without breaking mom and dad’s budget.

Loving Gloria’s for the food…and the patio

Glorias Restaurant in Austin Texas via Ais4Austin.comEvery time we went to the Domain, I would see the sign for Gloria’s restaurant and say “We have to try that place sometime.”  Well sometime finally came, and now the only thing we’re wondering is why we didn’t make time to try it sooner!

We were seated on their large patio, our choice for what was a perfect night of soft breezes, Then we opened our menus…the dinner menu for Lance, and the special vegetarian menu for me (yes, they have a complete vegetarian menu!  I was delighted!) As we browsed, we snaked on warm tortilla chips and a salsa with a definite (and much welcome) kick to it.

A little bit about Gloria’s history

In a city filled to the brim with Tex-Mex, the delicate Salvadoran touch at Gloria’s was very welcome. Owners Gloria and Jose Fuentes come by their cuisine naturally.  The two emigrated from El Salvador in 1978. After some difficult years in Houston, they moved to Dallas and soon were working with Gloria’s sister in her Salvadoran restaurant. A year later, they took over the restaurant, which they renamed Gloria’s.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Gloria’s has gone from one small location to 14 locations around Texas.  The business remains very much a family concern — according to our waiter, Gloria herself tries to visit each location once a week!

And then there’s the food!

Our daughter had the vegetarian combination, (which included Papusas (much like an Arepa), Plantano Frito and in-house made black bean soup), I selected the vegetarian fajitas, and Lance chose a beef and chicken combo (for the meat-eater among us),

Unlike many local restaurants where the food arrives smothered in a blanket of cheese, each item on the Gloria’s plates was allowed to shine without over-saucing or burying it. The veggies for the fajita were crisp and fresh…nothing greasy or soggy here.  The cheese was a tasty queso fresco, and the white corn tortillas were thin and warm and fresh. Lance loved the seasoning on the meats, and enjoyed the spicy chili con queso (a dish he usually refuses as it’s often too salty or greasy.)

Service was impeccable, even when I made a special request for something to be changed in my fajita.

This restaurant is a definite must-go-again, especially when the breeze is mild and we’re planning a date night.

Sure it’s Tex-Mex…but Chuy’s does it so well!

Chuys original location

Okay, before I get a bevy of comments telling me it’s not authentic Mexican food, let me say up front “I know it’s Tex-Mex…but love Tex-Mex!”

I generally don’t write about chain restaurants, but Chuy’s is an exception. Why? Because Chuy’s is a chain that started right here in Austin. And since 1982, they’ve been serving up great big platters of hot, tasty food to Austin and beyond (they even have a location in Florida now!)

I’ve been to three Chuy’s locations so far, but I like the original on Barton Springs Road the best. How could you not love the quirky decor, especially when you read about the $20 decorating budget that inspired the kitschy combination of hub caps and mismatched tiles and velvet paintings!

And then there’s the food. I keep saying I’m going to try something different, but those veggie enchiladas end up in front of me almost every time. Our daughter almost always opts for the custom enchiladas with extra cheese and tangy tomatillo sauce. Lance has been more adventurous, trying the Hatch Chili Chicken, Fajita Beef Burritos and Tortilla Soup, and pronounced it all delicious.

The menu is big enough for most tastes, and the kitchen is more than willing to switch out ingredients to make things vegetarian, pork free or as spicy as your tastes will allow.

When you visit, make sure to find the Elvis Shrine (there’s one at every single location!), and add one or two of their unique t-shirts to your order. Someone at Chuy’s is having way too much fun using the designs to poke fun at popular movies, TV shows and celebrities to pass up the chance to own at least one.

Chuy’s are generally open late and are family friendly. Sadly most locations are not pet friendly.