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Dining review: A happy return to Rio Salado in Mystic

A week before Connecticut forced restaurants to close to stem the spread of coronavirus in March 2020, we dined at the new Mexican eatery in Mystic, Rio Salado. 

The restaurant had opened in December 2019 to very good reviews, and we finally got there just before the earth spun off its axis — well, maybe not that exactly — but before COVID upset pretty much everything, including the dining out experience.

Fifteen months to the day after we were last there, we ventured back to Rio Salado to give it another try, and it was just as good as we remembered. I never got to write that original review because the newspaper canceled weekly restaurant critiques when everything shut down and pretty much everyone went into hibernation.

The restaurant reopened for takeout, dine-in and patio dining months ago, but we waited until being fully vaccinated to go back indoors again. We went early on a recent Wednesday evening, and the place was hopping. After so much social deprivation, it was a bit jarring.

But there are safety protocols in place — masks required unless seated at your table, ample distance between tables, staff masked at all times, and employees dedicated solely to bussing and cleaning separate from those preparing and serving food.

We were up for it and excited to be back at Rio Salado. Our waitress was exceptional, ever attentive, spot-on in her recommendations, and willing to answer any and all questions.

She suggested we start with the Rio Rones ($15), chunks of crispy fried pork belly, and the Taquitos de Pollo ($10), rolled chicken tortillas. Both were very good, but if you order the Rio Rones, never tell your cardiologist. Served with a garlic mojo, a delicious blend of what tasted like citrus and cilantro, the crispy pork bites were delectable.

The thinly rolled chicken tortillas get a big thumbs up too. They arrived in a small bowl with a heaping helping of chile con queso and salsa fresca. We had considered ordering the Street Corn ($5), which we saw delivered to a nearby table, but agreed all that creamy sauce and crumbled cheese over an ear of grilled corn would be messy. But, wow, did it look good.

There were three of us, and for entrees, we all went in different directions. No one was disappointed with their decision.

The burrito bowl — called the El Jefe ($17) — combined all the traditional burrito ingredients in a bowl, not a flour tortilla. There was pork carnitas, avocado, rice and beans, pickled red onions, jalapenos, chihuahua cheese, and chile con queso. The dish was pretty to look at and a tasty blend of flavors. The pork was cooked to perfection and tender and flavorful, and the pickled red onion offered pizazz with an additional pop from the jalapenos.

There were chicken and pork and steak tacos, but we opted for the Tacos de Camarones Frito ($16), or crispy shrimp variety. There were two, and they arrived open-faced on a board, drizzled with green chile aioli and sweet cabbage slaw. The plate was garnished with a lime wedge sitting on a pretty sliver of a watermelon radish and sides of rice and beans. Each taco had two plump shrimp that were served as described — crispy — but only on the outside. Inside, they were moist and flavorful.

Many of the items on the Rio Salado menu are designated as gluten-free, which I know more and more diners are looking for. Both the shrimp tacos and our third entrée met that criteria. For our final dish, we decided on the Puerco de Cochinita Pibil ($21) — a slow-braised pork shoulder with achiote (a spice extracted from the seeds of the evergreen with a nutty, earthy flavor) and bitter orange, with warm tortillas and sweet plantains.

The pork was very good, and the plantains, delightful. They were served warm, and they were sweet and tender. Not an item you find on too many menus. This dish was a very large portion, and even after sharing, there was plenty to take home for another meal, or two.

Everyone has their own comfort level for venturing out in COVID times, even when vaccinated. Our biggest surprise at Rio was how many other diners were there and how comfortable they seemed. Perhaps they have been comforted by the Guatemalan worry dolls that Rio Salado hands out when it’s time to pay.

These tiny little treasures arrive in a cigar box with your bill, and they are yours to take home. Our waitress explained that legend says if you put the dolls under your pillow at night, they will take your worries away. No doubt, we all need worry dolls after the past 13 months, so that’s another reason beyond the good food and service to visit Rio Salado.

El Jefe, left, and Tacos de Camarones Frito, above
photos by Ann Baldelli
El Jefe, left, and Tacos de Camarones Frito, above photos by Ann Baldelli

Rio Salado

Rio Salado

8 Coogan Blvd., Mystic

(860) 245-5152

Find them on the Web at rio-salado.com or search their name to find on Instagram and Facebook.

Atmosphere: The place is clean and new and has a rustic but modern Mexican vibe, if that’s possible. A fireplace divides the two indoor dining rooms, and outside, on a covered porch that overlooks Olde Mistick Village, there is additional seating.

Alcohol: There’s a full-service bar that makes tasty margaritas, or whatever else you desire.

Hours: Monday to Thursday 3 to 9 p.m.; Friday 3 to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 10; and Sunday noon to 9. 

Service: Very good.

Prices: Affordable and fair. The most expensive thing on the menu is the Carne al la Parilla, a grilled skirt steak for $26.

Credit cards: Yes.

Handicapped accessible: Yes.

 

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