A New Wave of Mexican Fast Food Restaurants Revitalize the Genre

During dinner hours at the Caf Rio, the long line of customers snakes through the tables and fills the bustling restaurant. The wait can be 30 minutes long, but it’s been that way at the Mexican fast food eatery (if it can still be called fast-food) since it opened about three years ago. Its success sprouted a second location during the past year, and the wait there isn’t any shorter.

Mexican fast food is the hottest thing going, as people on the go are looking for alternatives to burgers, sandwiches and pizza. Several local chains have formed during the past few years, and they all have been well received. Cost-conscious young families like the prices. Mature professionals like the new choices. Even Utah Jazz basketball players are spotted at Cafe Rio occasionally.

And, of course, they’re perfect for students on a budget. All of the chains featured in this article have a location near campus, making them a logical choice when you’re looking for a good, simple and convenient meal.

These new restaurants are re-inventing the genre that has long been dominated by the likes of Taco Bell and Del Taco. Anything suggesting prepackaged food, such as packets of sauce or bags of chips, is out. None of the new restaurants have a drive through, and not a single one serves a hard-shell taco, which is often a source of derision among Mexican food purists.

The formula is similar at the new chains. They have figured that the basic ingredients of tacos, enchiladas, burritos and salads are the same. The restaurants’ assembly lines just have to package the bean, rice, meat, tortilla, lettuce and cheese a little differently. For a burrito, wrap the tortilla around the meat, rice and beans, then put the lettuce on the side. Leave the tortilla open, pile the lettuce on top, and voila?a Mexican salad.

At $4 to $8, the price range of the dishes is a bit higher than that of the traditional fast-food joints. Except for Caf Rio, the service is fairly quick. Also, the management tends to staff the restaurants with Hispanics, giving the restaurants an air of authenticity. The exception is Guru’s, which has an eclectic menu.

Of all the restaurants reviewed in this article, Caf Rio has the best food. It’s clearly the most popular too. The freshness of its ingredients (they make their own tortillas) and the flavor of its sauces give their dishes the edge. It has a big menu that includes desserts such as a coconut flan (custard). But the lines are unjustifiably long, so it’s a good choice only for late lunches or early dinners.

Caf Rio also has daily specials, which include a beverage, for under $5. It also has a frequent dining card. The 11th meal is free.

Guru’s doesn’t fit into the Mexican fast-food genre neatly. Although it’s fast and offers several Mexican dishes, Guru’s also sells a number of other items, such as a blackened halibut salad and teriyaki chicken rice bowl. The excellent service and comfortable atmosphere have attracted a loyal clientele at its three Salt Lake Valley locations. Guru’s also boasts that it’s a socially responsible business, selling merchandises to raise money for charity.

All of the dishes I tried tasted very light, and Guru’s also offers half orders, a great relief from the ever swelling American serving size. So consider Guru’s if you are looking for a healthy choice.

Started in California, Rubio’s Baja Grill specializes in seafood. The menu includes fish tacos, lobster burritos, and shrimp quesadillas. It definitely has the most traditional fast-food environment?large overhanging menu, ordering at the counter and adorning your meal with salsa at the condiment table?which reflects the fact that Rubio’s has 38 locations in the intermountain region and dozens more in California.

The food at Rubio’s is fair. The ingredients lack the freshness needed to make their dishes better than the average fast-food offering. The Sugarhouse location have the best patio of all the restaurants reviewed in the article.

Barbacoa has a couple of locations, one near the corner of 900 South and 900 East. The menu is small and void of any innovation. Also, I wasn’t too impressed by the burrito I tried there. The ingredients didn’t taste fresh, though I admit it was my only visit. Maybe they had a bad night.

La Salsa hit the valley with a splash a few years ago and opened several restaurants quickly. But with all the new competition, La Salsa was losing its edge. Recently, the owner has been trying to give the restaurants a lift by renaming them Zoza’s. Unfortunately, I think the changes are all cosmetic. The menu has changed, but the food hasn’t improved significantly.

I worked in Taylorsville for a couple years, and my co workers’ favorite lunchtime destination is Que Pasa. After giving it several tries, I cannot find any virtue in its menu, atmosphere or service. The meat at Que Pasa is stale and void of flavor, and none of its other ingredient tasted fresh.

But the bar for convenient food is raised continuously, as more busy Americans are eating out. Mixing fast-food mentality with flavor from south of the border is good business, and the idea is likely to keep growing. Will fast Mexican breakfast featuring menudo come next?

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