There have been plenty of prospectors who have talked about developing historic downtown Plano into a vibrant, hip destination. The Fillmore Pub and Vickery Park, two spinoffs from trendy Henderson Avenue in Dallas, sparked the fire when they moved in among the vintage clothing stores, furniture markets, and quaint embroidery shops that have populated 15th Street for many years. The little old ladies who lunch at Jörg’s Cafe Vienna began sharing the sidewalks with tattooed barflies.
But Nathan Shea is the one who fanned the flame. He has opened two thoughtful and successful restaurants, turning East Plano into a destination for diners from as far away as Oak Cliff. Plano doesn’t seem remote when you sit at a table in the second-story bar at Urban Rio and watch the twinkling lights of Reunion Tower in the distance.
Shea has been a believer in Plano since he moved here from Michigan in 1972. He taught school at Richardson’s Berkner High for 15 years. After class, he dabbled in marketing and bought and sold real estate. His wife, Bonnie, spent 25 years in the oil and gas business. She retired from a large firm and decided to strike out on her own. The Sheas looked for office space near their home in Plano and stumbled on a vacant building on East 15th Street that was once a saddle and harness store. Nathan bought the building and, with the help of his builder brother Michael and designer Cal Young of CYA Design Collective, finished out the interior and added a second floor to accommodate Bonnie’s office. Then they not only changed their minds, but they also changed the energy of downtown Plano. Bonnie and Nathan partnered with Salvatore Gisellu (the Sardinian chef who owned Daddy Jack’s Wood Grill in Deep Ellum) and his wife, Jeanne-Marie, to open Urban Crust Wood-Fired Pizza and 32 Degrees Rooftop Bar in 2009. The street that once shuttered at 5 pm was now open late. The search for Bonnie’s office continued.
A block down the street, they found the deserted Plano Ice House. It opened in 1917 and was the only place locals could buy blocks of ice. The building was in sad shape, though. It probably would have been less expensive and easier if they’d torn it down. Instead, the Sheas preserved what history they could and created a four-story complex with a restaurant; a bar (On the Rocks); a catering office and event space (Rooftop), with an exhibition kitchen for cooking classes and demos; a gelato shop; and potential office space.
The first floor is Urban Rio, a restaurant with a contemporary take on Tex-Mex-meets-Southwestern cuisine. The name translates, more or less, into “River of the City,” but since there isn’t a true waterway, it refers to the DART rail tracks that run beside the building. They are the “steel river” of Plano.
My gal pal who lives in downtown Dallas hopped a DART train at Pearl Station and took a 40-minute ride up the steel river to meet me for dinner. I don’t know how many downtown dwellers would consider commuting to Plano for dinner, but thanks to Shea, it’s a now a reality.
Urban Rio is more than chips, salsa, and margaritas. The menu offers something for everyone: tacos, enchiladas, tortas, empanadas, and chili. There are hamburgers for the unadventurous and tamale pie and chef-y entrées for intrepid eaters. Shea enlisted celebrity chef Mark Miller, the creator of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Red Sage in Washington, D.C., to work with Urban Rio’s executive chef, Ryan Olmos, formerly of Eatzi’s, on saucing and roasting techniques. They grind corn into masa and form tortillas on a wooden press. The cocktail menu is creative. They offer eight hypercooled tequilas on tap, and the short wine list includes selections from Chile, Spain, Argentina, and California. All of the juices, including mango, pineapple, watermelon, lemon, lime, and lychee, are produced in-house.
“I have a passion for this place. It’s fun,” Shea says. “Our focus is on fresh. Everything we do here is fresh, and I want the people in Plano to have fresh food instead of fast food.”
My gal pal and I got both. Five minutes after we ordered tamale pie and smoked brisket tacos, they were delivered to the table. I would
have preferred more time to enjoy the watermelon margarita and basket of green nopales chips mixed with traditional white corn chips served with two salsas, one of puréed black beans with a hint of canela (Mexican cinnamon) and the other a tomato-and-cilantro-based red sauce spiked with garlic and serrano peppers. Instead, we pushed away the calorie-laden basket and dug into our entrées.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.
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.