Grande: the only size this baby comes in

Rio Grande Caf270 S. Rio Grande Street364-3302U-Discount: NoFour out of five plates (food)Four out of five stars (ambiance)$10-15

You may only travel long distances via automobile, airplane or?err?cruise liner?I guess. But there was a time, not too long ago, when the vast preponderance of Americans traveled in a different style-by train, that is.

Once upon a time, trains were a staple element of American culture, expanding from mere transportation into all areas of life including the social, economic, domestic and artistic spheres.

But technology has advanced drastically since then, and this once-ubiquitous way of life has been brushed aside into the corner, discarded like so many used Band-Aids.

It seems that all that’s left of this era of American history is a handful of lame, touristy trains and locomotive memorabilia, which almost seem to mock train culture rather than commemorate it.

Like some sort of Robin Hood, in steps the Rio Grande Caf, one of the last vestiges of true railroad culture.

This restaurant serves up only the heartiest and zestiest Mexican fare in none other than Salt Lake City’s historical Rio Grande train station. As a result, this place has a one-of-a-kind ambiance.

Since it’s inside the northern wing of the aged train station building, the Rio Grande Caf has a very noticeable air of antiquity about it. The walls, the diner-ish counter, the woman in a giant taco hanging in the center of the room (known as the “Purple Lady,” she is rumored to haunt the building), even the old-style bathrooms just seem to breathe history.


You can smell it. I swear.

But added to this charming vintage feel is a potent dash of complete and utter casualness. The Rio Grande Caf is a great restaurant, it serves amazing food, and it knows it. There is no pretension whatsoever in the Rio Grande because it is simply not trying to prove anything. And that pervasive but never in-your-face confidence is quite refreshing; it allows everyone, from the staff to the diners, to just relax and enjoy the food.

And the food?(drooling sounds)?is spectacular. This is Mexican cuisine at its best-everything is big and fat, overflowing equally with ingredients and bold, brash flavors that are just as big and fat. Seriously, from the tacos to the burritos to the enchiladas to the chimichangas, everything is stuffed to the extreme. And if your mouth were taking a nap before it came in here, well, let’s just say that the food would serve as a very competent alarm clock.

It’d be like waking up to the sound barrier being broken. Or something.

Two excellent options include the flauta grande and the vegetable enchilada. The enchilada, which would be considered morbidly obese were it human, comes filled with tons of veggies-zucchini, broccoli, carrots, hominy, onions and tomatoes-and draped in a lavish tomatillo cream sauce and thick blanket of cheese.

I could try to describe the flauta grande, oh, by saying that it’s a giant, crunchy fried tortilla stuffed with all kinds of things (guacamole, onions, rice, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. and chicken, beef or pork). Or, I could sum it all up in the words of an anonymous friend: “This is an intense m****’ f***in’ burrito.”

I think the latter does a better job. No?

Anyway, you can trust that everything on the menu at Rio Grande is superb and here’s why: You can (almost) always judge a Mexican restaurant by the quality of its guacamole.

Thin, watery, bland and/or lettuce-infested guac means that the rest of the menu is rather sub-par, in terms of composition, preparation or both. But guacamole that is as rich, creamy and flavorful-not to mention enhanced by the perfect amount of tomato and onion chunks-as Rio Grande’s serves as a fair indication that the remainder of the menu is equally scrumptious.

You don’t have to take my word for it, but this is pretty freakin’ awesome guacamole.

So, whether you’re in the mood for a huge, corpulent, juicy dose of Mexican flavor or just enjoy basking in the warm, yellowed aura of days gone by, Rio Grande is the place to go.

Who knows-maybe when teleporting finally gets figured out, there’ll be restaurants devoted to airplane culture.

Come on, scientists. I can’t wait for some of that sweet, sweet airplane food.

Hurry it up, already.

[email protected]