Americans have adopted Mexican food for obvious reasons; it’s tasty, flavorful, fun, nutritious, convenient, and relatively easy to make. Whether it’s authentic or not, Mexican food is so typical in the U.S. that it seems to have become an American specialty. Needless to say, the demand for quality Mexican food is continuously growing. It’s no surprise that new Mexican restaurants open with new ideas and concepts to offer something new and intriguing for the masses to try.
That’s what Steve and Patricia Stanley decided to do in 1997 in southern Utah in a little place called St. George. Their idea was to create a fast-food restaurant that served “traditional” Mexican dishes made with the freshest ingredients available.
They named the place Cafe Rio. Taking no shortcuts, the couple prepared everything fresh daily and refused to use freezers or microwaves to ensure their customers that everything they ordered was 100% fresh, hence their motto “fresh food, made fresh.”
Even when a menu doesn’t have clear vegan dishes, the vegan dieter is clever and resourceful when he/she has to find a way to eat at the most un-vegan places. Cafe Rio’s mission is to provide fresh food made with fresh ingredients, so vegans should be hopeful that it may offer vegan-friendly options.
Can I Eat Vegan At Cafe Rio?
Cafe Rio has a lot of animal and dairy products. If the question is based on ethical aspects only, then the fast-food joint is undoubtedly not vegan-friendly. Now, everyone has a different approach to their vegan diet. Most of us will put aside the fact that a place uses animal products and focus on what we can eat that doesn’t violate the vegan diet “code.” If that’s your vegan approach, then Café Rio should offer plenty of options for you. Of course, the list isn’t lengthy, but you’ll find a way to have a decent vegan meal at Café Rio, nonetheless.
What’s The Concept?
Cafe Rio is a fast-food restaurant that serves various convenient dishes that can be consumed on-site or on the go. They’re open for lunch and dinner. You can expect to be welcomed by hardworking young staff members that do their best to provide you a pleasant experience. Still, don’t expect the moon when you walk into the place; it’s fast-food at an affordable price, not a Michelin-star restaurant. In this regard, you get what you pay for. The concept is straightforward: fast-food made with fresh ingredients and dishes put together in front of your very eyes.
What Are People Saying?
Reviews have become the new word-of-mouth since the explosion of social media. A handful of good reviews can put a business on the map, while a single bad review can hurt your chances of getting new customers. When it comes to fast food, the reviews are usually very mixed. You can’t please everyone, and most people understand that.
Cafe Rio’s reviews are just as split. Some write about a great experience and fantastic food, while others complain of poor service and a lack of hygiene. We can’t judge the place by reading a few reviews (I spent countless time looking through them during breakfast, they can be so entertaining), but we can make an intelligent guess by looking for recurring issues. There are many rants about poor service, lack of hygiene, and mistakes on orders.
Thankfully, one thing that didn’t come up often was about the quality or taste of the food, leading me to believe that the food must be worthwhile.
As long as you don’t act like a know-it-all, fun facts are always welcome in most conversations and make most people say, “wow, how did you know about that?” I love to hear that, so here are a few good ones:
1. Every Monday, Cafe Rio’s headquarters staff are invited to eat at Cafe Rio. That’s a pretty nice treat, don’t you think?
2. Each Cafe Rio location has a cookbook that contains the restaurant’s secret formula. They have to lock it in a safe every day, and the employees must sign a form that states that they cannot reveal the recipes. It sounds so much like Mr. Krabs and his Krabby Patty secret formula; I love it!
3. Horchata (a sweet rice milk beverage) is Cafe Rio’s most popular drink in Utah.
4. Cafe Rio went to “war” with a competing fast-food chain called Coast Vida. Cafe Rio accused them of copying their menu and concept.
Cafe Rio’s menu can be broken down into three sections: entrees, appetizers, and desserts. Let’s have a look at each section to find out if Cafe Rio is vegan-friendly enough. We’ll try to determine if Cafe Rio is worth the trip.
I have to point out that Cafe Rio is transparent about its menu. They do not claim to be able to accommodate vegans or people with severe allergies. This is the right way for them to stay out of trouble and make things clear to those that have dietary restrictions. Here’s an excerpt from their allergen page:
“Individual foods may come in contact with one another during preparation, which is not reflected in this nutritional brochure. Although efforts are made to avoid cross-contact of allergens, Cafe Rio does not guarantee that cross-contact with allergens will not occur.”
With that said, if you’re the strictest kind of vegan, you may want to forget about Cafe Rio and find a more vegan-friendly place. If you’re less stringent, Cafe Rio may still be a viable option for you. Either way, read on to find out how a vegan menu looks at Cafe Rio.
To give you a better idea of what is served at Cafe Rio, here’s their menu at a glance:
- Chips & salsa
- Chips & guac
- Chips & queso
- Tortilla soup
- Tres leches
- Fresh lime pie
Before we continue and find out if any of the above items are vegan-friendly, it’s paramount to mention that Cafe Rio uses margarine (apparently a type of margarine produced with animal products) to prep their tortillas.
You must ask for no margarine on your tortillas if you want to make it “vegan-ish.” I use “vegan-ish” because your tortilla will be made on the same grill as the margarine prepared ones.
You’ve been warned, the tortillas will not be 100% vegan unless they serve it to you uncooked, but that just sounds crazy.
Your Vegan Menu
- Chips and salsa (salsa Fresca or pico de gallo)
- Chips and guacamole
You can build your vegan burritos, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas, or nachos. You’ll have to order this way:
1. Choose your tortilla:
- Flour tortilla
- Wheat tortilla
- Corn tortilla
- Tortilla chips
- Tostada shell
2. Choose your base:
- Cilantro lime rice
- Black beans
- Pinto beans
3. Choose your toppings:
- Pico de gallo
- Salsa fresca
4. Choose your dressing:
- Cilantro lime
- Pineapple salsa mango
- Tomatillo sauce
None of the options are vegan-friendly.
Is It Worth It?
It doesn’t seem impossible for vegans to have a decent meal at Cafe Rio, but you have to be a pretty flexible vegan to eat there without feeling guilty. Cross-contamination is almost impossible to avoid, given that all the tortillas are grilled on the same surface. You also have to consider that animal and dairy products such as chicken, pork, beef, fish, and cheese are kept near the vegetables. So, is it worth it? That all depends on how you see things. If I had the choice, I would pass on Cafe Rio.
Cafe Rio has a rich history, great philosophy, and serves relatively good food at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, they aren’t prepared to cater to vegans.
The large number of reviews that pointed out a lack of hygiene is alarming whether you’re vegan or not. The tortillas prepared in a type of margarine that isn’t vegan is also strange given that there are many vegan margarine brands out there that are probably much healthier.
Cafe Rio gives opportunities to youth, which is wonderful. But it also means that the people prepping, cooking, and serving your food are probably inexperienced youngsters, which could well explain the complaints about poor customer service and recurring mistakes on orders.