By Melody Birkett, GSN Contributor
Sonoran, Baja, West Texas, Tex-Mex and Oaxaca are just a few Mexican cuisines you’ll find at East Valley restaurants.
But Mario Ruiz, general manager of Rio Rico in Gilbert, decided his memories of his parents’ meals warranted calling their restaurant’s Mexican cuisine California-style.
“Originally, it was hard for me to put a label on it because I grew up eating this type of food in California,” he said.
“I notice a lot of Mexican restaurants out here are considered Sonoran style – which I learned is not what we are,” he added. “My parents are from the Central part of Mexico. However, I would say it’s more like California-style Mexican food. The funny thing is whenever we get a customer visiting us from California, the first thing they say after trying the food is ‘Oh my gosh, this is just like back home, where are you guys from?’”
Ruiz’s parents, Maria Zambrano and Juan Ruiz, own Rio Rico, which they bought in 2005 after moving here from Southern California – realizing Juan’s longtime dream.
Located on the northeast corner of Val Vista Drive and Guadalupe Road, it offers a large dining room and booths that the couple’s first restaurant across the street had lacked.
“We kept the name ‘Rio Rico,’” said Ruiz. “The restaurant we bought had only been open a few years. Looking back, that was probably a really bad idea because people probably thought we were the same owners.”
Juan worked as a chef at a small restaurant in a town near Santa Maria, California, in the 1980s and still does most of the cooking at Rio Rico.
The family prides itself on signature dishes, such as mole and chile colorado – which are chunks of pork cooked in a New Mexico dry red chile sauce.
“Chile verde is my favorite, but we also serve traditional items like tacos, tamales, enchiladas, chimichangas and burritos,” Ruiz said. “We serve all of that but then about a dozen seafood items, as well.”
He’s particularly proud of the camerones al chipotle.
“That’s an amazing dish,” he said. “It comes with eight jumbo shrimp, tail on, deveined and grilled. They’re served on a bed of grilled onions and mushrooms over somewhat spicy chipotle sauce along with rice and beans and flour or corn tortillas on the side. It’s the best thing on the menu.” There’s also a version made with chicken.
“All of our food is fresh from scratch, even the salsa and guacamole,” Mario said. “There are only two dessert items that are not made here which are the churros and sopapillas.”
Chile rellenos, his dad’s favorite, and tamales are the top selling items.
“Customers hate it when we run out of tamales,” Ruiz said. “They’re very labor intensive.”
His mother makes the tamales and also helps making mole and flan.
The family shuns most spicy dishes.
“I think the misconception at Mexican restaurants is that the food is spicy,” Ruiz said. “But here, most of our dishes are not. We have a few that are somewhat spicy and just a couple that are really spicy.”
Another item made from scratch are margaritas. Rio Rico makes their own margarita mix with fresh lime juice. Strawberry and Mango margaritas are available, as well.
Rio Rico caters but doesn’t advertise that option because the family is so busy. It’s on a requested basis.
Besides, the Ruizes like it when people visit the restaurant.
“When you come in, you’ll be waited on by not necessarily a stock holder but a stake holder,” Mario Ruiz said. “I have a stake in this business because it’s my family’s restaurant. My little sister works here part-time. She’s in college … There’s always someone here that cares about the business.”
Business has grown so much that the family had to hire outside help, but Ruiz said there’s “always tons of family at the restaurant so there’s always someone here who cares.”
“I greet our regulars by name when they walk in. A lot of people will say, ‘that reminds us of that TV show ‘Cheers’ because it’s a family restaurant where you have your regulars. That probably comprises 90 percent of our business, which is huge. We have people who come here on a weekly basis. So we have a good reputation.”
Even though Ruiz estimates that Rio Rico serves scores of customers every day, the restaurant accepts reservations except after 5 p.m. Friday and on Cinco de Mayo. It’s closed on Mondays.