Rio Nuevo Cantina – North Point

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

I’ve been reviewing restaurants in Alpharetta for three years now, here on my blog and before that on Yelp. Never in those three years have I witnessed a restaurant open with such negative reviews. Never. I’m stunned and amazed at the poor reception Rio Nuevo is getting online. As of right now they sport a 29% “like it” rating on Urban Spoon, well below the Mendoza Line of restaurants. Is it justified? Yes, mostly.

I hesitate to call this a review of the joint. I went there last Sunday night. Even though we had four adults and two children, it ended up that we didn’t order a lot of Mexican entrees. I hate to review them based on what we had. So let’s call this article an early observation. How about that? Here’s what I thought…

The Location

Famous Dave’s BBQ used to be here. Before that it was Houlihan’s. They’ve done a pretty good job building out the space. It is more open than the floor plan I remember from the previous two restaurants. Strangely enough, one of the first things I noticed was the chairs. They have the Rio Nuevo name etched into the wood in the back. My wife thought this was a chain based on that alone. Did they really go to the trouble of making fancy, custom chairs just for a concept restaurant? Apparently so.

And speaking of concept restaurant… I’ve heard that Rio Nuevo is from the creators of El Azteca. Explains a lot. Ubiquitous “Speedy Gonzalez” chain making a go at higher-end Mexican. Great. And doing it on North Point by the mall… Classic.

The Service

You’ll never find me slamming a new restaurant on service. There are always kinks to work out. Our service wasn’t perfect on Sunday, just a few little hiccups. If anything they were too attentive. The reviews on Urban Spoon talk of serious service problems on opening week. Nothing to hold against them I think. I did find it interesting that all the waiters were gringos.

The Food

I tried a mole dish, something which I have little experience eating. I ordered the most expensive of the three on the menu, hoping to taste a more complex assortment of flavors. I didn’t pick up on the chocolate or cinnamon, although my wife claimed to taste it. The chiles were there, but it lacked depth. The chicken they served it over was rather boring.

My wife ordered some kind of grilled chicken on mashed potatoes, which was flavorful but not Mexican at all. I’d order it again were it not for…

The Price

La cuenta, por favor. Ay, caramba!

I’ll agree with every other review of this place. It is expensive… really expensive. The kids meals don’t have a price on the menu. That’s because they are $7.95. And that 8 bucks of quesadilla didn’t fill up my three year old. Pretty sad.

Lunch prices run about $12. This is a big-time serious problem. Suburbanites have become accustom dirt cheap Mexican food, especially at lunch. It’s obvious that Rio Nuevo is trying to be more than a “Speedy Gonzalez” joint. I think they’re trying to be very high end, Buckhead trendy. If that’s the goal, they are missing the mark by a mile. They need to step up their game fast to keep from turning this space into a ghost town.

However, if they are aiming for a mid-tier Mexican feel, something along the lines of Cinco or Tara Humata, then they’ve got a shot. The quality of the food is similar to these restaurants. They just need to get the price and service in-line with these established restaurants. Rio Nuevo needs to solve this identity problem, pronto!

In the meantime, will I be back? Let me put it this way… I’m not coming back here with the kids again. That would make this a date night location. And if it is a date night location, then it’s way in the back of a long line of truly outstanding restaurants. So no, I probably will not be back.

Rio Nuevo Mexican Cantina on Urbanspoon

6 Responses to “Rio Nuevo Cantina – North Point”

  1. jimgilvin December 11, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    Lee,
    Once again you have saved me the time and money of trying a new place in person. Thanks.

    Guess I’ll just stick with Cinco’s or Tara Humata. They are closer to me anyway.

  2. LM January 1, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    I went there tonight, and I will never go there again. The food was not as bad as the service. Very slow and disorganized. Instead of our waiter attending to his tables, he was making guacamole in front of the customers!!! Too expensive for the quality of food and the lack of service.

  3. Lee January 2, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, LM. I thought by now they would have had the service problems worked out. Guess not. But in their defense, table-side guacamole preparation is one of their gigs.

  4. Alan January 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    Obviously, the reviewer and responders have limited experience eating authentic Mexican food beyond “Speedy Gonzalez” and typical, boring tex-mex fare served at most other mexican restaurants in Atlanta and environs. Rio Nuevo is not trendy; it is authentic, true Mexican fare, very similar to what one may order in Mexico City, Guadalajara, or other sizeable Mexican locale. I applaud Rio Nuevo for exposing Atlantans to this food. Burritos, enchiladas and tacos do not comprise the total Mexican food experience. Rio Nuevo serves unique, fantastic, Mexican food, and me and all my friends will rush back repeatedly for more!!!!

  5. Lee January 4, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    Thanks for the comment Alan. I’m open to criticism and your’s is very fair. I pointed out my lack of experience in the review, specifically with mole dishes. But service and price cross the cuisine barrier.

    It is interesting to note the “Speedy Gonzalez” reference. It’s safe to say that they are closely related to one of Atlanta’s biggest Speedy chains. Just interesting or perhaps ironic, for what it’s worth.

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