Urban Rio's Next-Mex
Ten years ago, downtown Plano was pretty slow as far as downtowns go. Jorg's Café Vienna, serving delicate schnitzels and imported beers, had just opened, but there were no other interesting restaurants. There was a costume shop called the Queen of Hearts, but that would eventually close. There were (and still are) far more antique shops than any downtown should ever need and an office that sold life insurance. There might have been the occasional tumbleweed bouncing down 14th Street.
Public transportation and good city planning have a way of changing things. The DART rail station opened in 2002, and a neighborhood tavern called Kelly's started serving beers, chicken wings and cheese sticks a year later. Now there are Vickery Park and the Fillmore Pub right across the street from each other, and more bars and restaurants light the streets with neon signs. There's a fancy bistro called Zanata that serves pizzas from a wood-burning oven and a larger pizza shop called Urban Crust.
Nathan Shea and his wife, Bonnie, are responsible for Urban Crust, which opened in 2009. After a wood-burning oven they installed at home gave them the bug, they gutted the real estate they originally bought for office space. Now the historic W.R. George building is a three-story pizza pantheon complete with a frozen bar, whose pearly strip of frost keeps beers ice-cold all the way down to the dregs. Thick, gorgeous wood graces the floors and stairs and the brown tones echo in exposed brick walls, dressy lighting fixtures and parched leather saddles that nod to the past. (The building used to house a tack shop.)
The same respect for history governed the design of the Sheas' second restaurant, Urban Rio, which opened this summer. The old Plano Ice House, located just down J Street from Urban Crust, was many things after it stopped providing residents with frigid blocks to keep their meat and dairy cool, but it was not a building with a stately silhouette. The small footprint presented a problem too: It was hardly large enough to house the Sheas' aspirations.
This time they renovated from the outside in, wrapping the old architecture in modern construction that reaches four stories tall. The bottom floor boasts a Tex-Mex restaurant that mimics Urban Crust's high-volume, low-price model. On the second level, a bar decked out with flatscreens and an open deck caters to a younger crowd. The office space that was originally intended for the W.R. George building took over level number three, and the whole building is capped off with a massive roof deck and space for catered entertaining.
As the building took shape they hired Ryan Olmos and handed him a seemingly impossible assignment: Design a Tex-Mex menu fancy enough to distance itself from the commodity restaurants that line the nearby highway, but keep the prices on par with what a customer would expect while dining at Chili's. Neither Olmos or Shea can recall for certain who first uttered the phrase "Next-Mex," but the term stuck, and it describes a menu that distances itself from the standard beans-and-fajitas joints, even if Urban Rio serves plenty of both.
Olmos, who's fresh out of a five-year stint as a chef at Eatzi's, says careful planning helps him control labor costs so he can serve delicious tacos at basement prices. A large batch of braised pork shoulder is prepared separately with four different sauces before it ends up in many dishes. Smoked brisket and other ingredients fill multiple plates too. The results are ultra-spicy pork, sweet and smoky brisket, tangy chayote, fish and chicken tacos that cost a pittance ($6.75 to $8.75 for three), considering they're stuffed into handmade tortillas from freshly ground corn. The tortillas are a little bland, and a topping of cabbage is added in excess, but these tacos are absolutely delicious considering the price.
Empanadas in beef, mushroom and crab versions are just as good. While the ingredients inside are overwhelmed with a queso listo that oozes like processed cheese, the exterior crust is flaky, not the least bit oily and completely addictive. The same cheese makes its way into a chile relleno, and it's just as overpowering. You can see the potatoes, carrots and serrano chiles in the fold, but unless you're concentrating you'll have a hard time tasting them. The coating that encases the poblano chili is as crispy as Kellogg's corn flakes, though, and much more entrancing.
Don't neglect the corn and crab enchiladas topped with sour cream sauce. The seafood is fresh, and the corn is sweet and slightly blackened from a slow roast on the grill. Other enchiladas employ enough flavor combinations to keep a regular diner busy, even if some of the fillings were borrowed from the tacos. Considering how often he repeats some ingredients, Olmos does a good job of keeping the menu from becoming tiring.
Fajitas, on the other hand, completely disappoint. The chicken and steak are aggressively seasoned with lime, but their arrival neglects the steaming, smoking fanfare that accompanies celebrated versions. Olmos blames kitchen equipment for the problem, but promises the plates will sizzle soon. When they do, he'll have a well-rounded menu that brings something new to East Plano.
The chicken chimichurri torta should be called a "tortette," but the modest size of the sandwich highlights Urban Rio's greatest strength. It's not often you can eat a plate of enchiladas flanked with black beans and rice without feeling like your sides may split. Sure, there's an endless procession of store-bought chips you can dip in a tomato-heavy salsa or runny black beans, but most of the plates at Urban Rio show refreshing restraint.
A double-stacked quesadilla seems Texas-sized (and isn't crisp like the menu promises) and desserts are huge, but other plates are just large enough to satisfy a hungry diner, and they look pretty nice too. When was the last time you had an Tex-Mex plate garnished with micro cilantro? When was the last time a plate like that cost you less than 10 bucks?
While Shea and Olmos nail the value play, the décor sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. A few of the booths along one side of the restaurant are too long and narrow, and the bar at the front looks empty and uninviting for dining, though a massive open kitchen running the length of the dining room provides a nice focal point for diners.
Meanwhile, the upstairs bar feels jangly. A color-shifting, brightly lit glass bar is out of synch with the antique ice box and rusting ice hooks on display. Outdoor tables seem like they were chosen at the last second (the layout is strange) and the bar stools feel light enough to blow away, and many are shaky.
Not that anyone seems to mind. There's live music playing loudly and a fall breeze cools the outdoor space and diners can wrap up a meal and drinks with something sweet from the gelato bar downstairs. Shea didn't have a great answer for why gelato belongs in a Next-Mex restaurant other than it's fun. He has a point — while Urban Rio may not offer enough to bring customers from afar, locals may find something to celebrate. Compared with what was available in downtown Plano a decade ago, this place is a hoot.
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