There's a jovial atmosphere that greets guests as they step up to order at the new Café Rio Mexican Grill on Hunt Highway.
Staff members periodically burst out into song, and when one begins, everyone joins in. This is just one of many things that make the restaurant a unique experience in the San Tan Valley area.
The new Café Rio opens at 10:30 a.m. six days a week.
Things are busy in the kitchen, however, long before the restaurant officially opens for the day.
For restaurant staff, the day begins in the early hours of the morning when they start squeezing limes, pitting and scooping avocados, chopping up vegetables and preparing sauces and recipes — all by hand.
It's all part of the restaurant's mission to serve customers fresh and flavorful meals on a daily basis.
"There are not any shortcuts," said Alex Hughes, a spokesperson for the restaurant. "We go the extra mile, and you can taste the difference in our food."
Providing the freshest Mexican fare possible is among the restaurant's primary aims, said Hughes.
Café Rio doesn't have microwaves or freezers onsite as the food served at the restaurant is meant to be prepared and served on the same day. The rule even applies to the cafe's tortillas, which are made from fresh dough on a comal, or griddle, onsite daily in an open-view kitchen, allowing customers to watch the process unfold right before their eyes.
"The comal bakes the fresh dough, and customers can watch their tortilla cook to perfection," said Hughes. "They are made fresh by the minute and you can taste the difference. Whether you’re the first customer of the day or the last customer of the day you’re going to get a hot, fresh tortilla."
The concept of serving food that is fresh and made to order has always been a part of Café Rio's model. The company was established as a local mom and pop shop in the town of St. George, Utah, by Steve and Patricia Stanley in 1997. It was designed to cook up and serve authentic food from the Rio Grande region of Mexico along with other areas including South Texas and New Mexico.
According to the restaurant's website, equally as important to the concept was the idea of serving only fresh ingredients. The restaurant appealed so much to customers that the Stanleys eventually opened up six other restaurants of the same name before selling to Bob Nilsen, who had a dream of opening up other Café Rio locations across Utah and in other locations outside the state.
The first expansion outside of Utah was the Gilbert location. Since then, Cafe Rio has gone on to open other locations in Arizona — with the STV restaurant being the most recent addition.
And serving up fresh ingredients daily still plays a big role in the restaurant's daily operations.
The restaurant also offers diners a chance to customize their order based on preference or dietary needs and even has gluten free options available as well. The idea is for customers to feel that they are a part of developing their own masterpiece, noted Hughes.
"We believe you should eat the food you want, the way you want it," Hughes said. "No matter your order, this style invites customers to be part of the creative process. Pick and choose the ingredients you love and create a meal that’s exactly what you’re craving on any given day. You can opt for a salad, with the freshest lettuce and toppings, or indulge in a queso-style burrito — that’s where we serve up one of our giant burritos with fresh queso ladled on top. With this flexibility, the meal becomes an interactive experience."
Café Rio is also known for several other specialities as well, including its grilled chicken salad, made with a freshly made tortilla along with pinto or black beans, cilantro lime rice and grilled chicken and topped with romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole and a choice of creamy tomatillo dressing or cilantro lime vinaigrette.
Another popular menu item is the cafe's sweet pork burrito — featuring another Café Rio specialty, sweet barbacoa pork — that can be made enchilada style, meaning that it's topped with one of the restaurant's signature sauces and cheese, then baked.
Given the highly customizable nature of the restaurant's menu, customers have the ability to order queso sauce or the restaurant's creamy tomatillo sauce over any burrito. They can also be added to other menu items like quesadillas and nachos, something that Hughes said takes the meal to another level.
"Pair that with a shredded chicken quesadilla or a sweet pork taco and you’re on your way to pure deliciousness," Hughes said.
The restaurant's sweet barbacoa pork is a popular item among customers, noted Hughes, especially on burritos and salads — though it can be added to any entree.
Customers, said Hughes, tend to enjoy the sweet barbacoa pork due to its unique flavor. Burritos are also another popular dish for the restaurant. Much of that, according to Hughes, has to do with both the delicious mix of flavors the cafe's burritos provide but also their size and value.
"We are a knife-and-fork burrito place," Hughes said, "meaning (the burritos) are too big to pick up, and usually are big enough for two meals!"
Aside from regularly serving diners until 10 p.m., the restaurant also caters and with catering, said Hughes, the focus is still very much on providing the same quality of fresh food served at the restaurant.
For Café Rio, the new STV location is more than just a restaurant. It's a new home and a chance to make an impact.
"We’re so happy to be part of the community in San Tan Valley and we look forward to building your new favorite meal, exactly how you want it," Hughes said. "We also believe in being good neighbors and offer fundraising to help support our community."