Restaurant Review: Urban Rio
Nathan Shea builds a destination dining empire in, of all places, East Plano.
The tamale pie is bound to become a best-seller. It’s unique yet appeals to all palates, including kids’. Chef Olmos mixes chicken, peppers (poblano, red bell, jalapeño, chipotle), hominy, and corn with chopped Roma tomatoes and white onions. The subtly spicy base is thickened and slightly soured with Oaxaquena cream. The gooey goodness is covered with a crust of masa and baked in a cast-iron skillet. The portion is enough for two unless you prefer the leftovers with your morning coffee.
There was nothing left of my three smoked brisket tacos. I even picked at the small pile of micro cilantro as a server attempted to remove the plate. Chef Olmos rubs the meat with olive oil and seasonings and lets it sit for about an hour. The brisket is placed fat side down in the charbroiler until the fat begins to caramelize. Then he adds more seasoning and smokes it for two hours. Finally, he covers the brisket with beer and slow cooks it for an additional eight to 10 hours. The time-consuming process produces silky strands of meat that are soaked in a spicy barbecue sauce before being wrapped in fresh corn tortillas. The tortillas enhance the flavor of both the tacos and the enchiladas. In the latter, the essence of corn filters through chicken bathed in chimichurri, caramelized onion, and roasted tomatoes. The whole thing is covered with a tomatillo-poblano verde sauce.
Urban Rio also offers what I consider to be the ultimate guy dish. The Rio steak is a gorgeous, globby mess. Cap steak is pounded thin, marinated in chimichurri, and stuffed with Oaxaca, panela, and Monterrey jack cheeses. The meat is folded over the cheese like a taco and grilled. It is sauced with garlic-lime butter. The accompanying rusty red rice is sublimely soft and light.
Quesadillas at Urban Rio are anything but ho-hum. Two layers of three cheeses (Oaxacan, panela, Chihuahuan) and avocado scented with ground Mexican oregano and smoked paprika are wrapped in buttered tortillas and griddled. The appetizer is enough for four to share.
I was surprised by the size of the servings because the prices are so low. The aforementioned quesadilla is $7.25, the tamale pie is $10.75, and the Rio steak is only $14.75. Margaritas start at $7 ($24 for a carafe), and you can order a glass of wine (Murphy-Goode Pinot Noir) for $6. Most of the wine list features familiar grocery store brands, but I’ve seen many of the same wines marked up higher at upscale restaurants in Dallas.
(clockwise from top left) Nathan and Bonnie Shea; chayote and Texas onion tacos; la verdadera cocktail; pork carnitas torta; interior wallphotography by Kevin Marple
Not all of my co-diners were impressed. One evening, the manly man in our foursome complained that his Rio steak was tasty but too salty. A finicky female who refers to herself as The Queen of Underseasoning took one bite of her pork carnita and said, “This tastes like something out of my own kitchen.” She wanted more “pow for her pork.” She also needed a megaphone to talk across the table. Save for the cloth-covered booths (with pillows!), the dining room consists of stone walls, glass, and other hard surfaces.
Despite the noise, the vibe at Urban Rio is fun. Upholstered and elevated booths line both sides of the rectangular room. A limestone water wall partially separates the main space from Nate’s Gelato shop next door. Gelato customers roam the dining room, and Urban Rio diners exit through the gelato shop, which offers 16 flavors made daily in-house with 100 percent whole milk. I sampled the vanilla and found it too sweet.
The demographic mix of the crowd in the bar, dining room, and gelato shop is unique—families, dates, large groups, African Americans, Indian, Hispanic, young, and old. After dinner, we walked up to On the Rocks, where the icicle lights hanging from the ceiling and fixtures made with old ice tongs gripping glass blocks give a playful nod to the history of the building. We sat on the patio and watched the sun set over the chain restaurants of West Plano, then snuck up to the fourth floor to get a look at Rooftop, the 4,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor event space.
On our way back down, we stopped to read the sign on the glass doors on the third floor: Urban Oil and Gas. Unless they change their minds again, Bonnie Shea has an office.