In the city
As a musician, I’ve had some of my most memorable experiences in Virginia City—and some really decent meals, too. Every small tourist town has its off season, making it extra necessary for an eatery to keep the locals sated in order to thrive. Despite only accepting cash and being open just three days a week, Cafe del Rio was the one restaurant mentioned as a “must try” by every Virginia City local I asked.
The place is definitely popular, and reservations are recommended. I wasn’t that smart, but I did plan on an early pre-gig meal with bandmates—and my cohort and I were able to squeak in right before the dinner rush on a Saturday evening.
Crispy and colorful tortilla chips were served with a fire roasted salsa that was tasty though mild, with plenty of fresh cilantro. The house “Del Rita” margarita ($7) was served on ice in a pint glass with salt and a mixture of silver tequila, agave and plenty of fresh lime juice. Service was very friendly and efficient. It seemed like we’d barely tucked into chips and drinks when our order arrived.
The cuisine is essentially “Tex Mex,” with a fair amount of creative flair and a whole lot of flavor. Our plates included sides of rice and beans. The rice was surprisingly fluffy, and the frijoles were somewhere between ranch-style and refried. Both were very good. The chef’s take on a pair of tacos ($16) includes lightly grilled flour tortillas stuffed with goodies that you can mix and match. My beef taco of hanger steak—grilled West Texas style—was combined with smoked cheddar, pico de gallo, lettuce and chipotle sour cream, while the other featured marinated grilled mahi mahi topped with avocado salsa and garlic slaw. While I love the simplicity of an authentic street taco, these huge beauties were anything but and in a league of their own. Every bite was full of flavor, and the only downside was a need to keep up the pace lest the bottom get a bit soggy from all the juicy goodness. A hand towel would have been handy, but I didn’t mind a bit.
My friend’s barbecue chicken quesadilla ($14) with jack cheese, fresh corn and poblano pesto was equally as impressive. The flour tortilla was just as nicely crisped as the tacos, holding the contents well enough for the quesadilla to be successfully dipped in the provided chipotle sour cream. I thought the presentation of all our dishes was above average, though my buddy seemed a bit nonplussed by an intact-with-leaves whole garnish he dubbed “Mister Radish Head.” I thought it was kind of cute.
A plate of carnitas ($16) was piled high with Yucatan-inspired, spiced and braised pork bites, served with avocado salsa, pickled onion, sour cream and warm flour tortillas. The dish had fantastic flavor—not a bit dry—and was more than enough food to share. But a beautifully dressed chile relleno ($12) was a true show stopper. The roasted and battered Anaheim chile was full of melted jack cheese and topped with a morita chile sauce and a healthy drizzle of chipotle sour cream. The seasonings were unlike any relleno I’ve had—complex yet comforting—with a rich smokiness that belied the pepper’s trial by fire before being stuffed and fried. Over the years I’ve tasted a lot of disappointing chiles relleno, with occasional moments of satisfaction. This sexy pepper had me at hello—and may have ruined me for all others.