By Shari Valenta
If you’ve ever been to the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant, and tried the margaritas, most likely they stuck in your mind. There’s definitely something besides tequila that gives that extra kick! Westword voted Rio’s margarita the best in that category in both 1999 and 2000. (The Rio enforces a three-drink limit, to “help” their customers be more responsible when they drink.)
The margarita recipe is a closely guarded secret. Rio owner Pat McGaughran and restaurant cofounders Andre and Steven Mouton came up with the recipe. Those three childhood friends from Texas founded the first Rio Grand Mexican Restaurant in Fort Collins in 1986, because they were unhappy with the lack of tex-mex food there.
The fact that none of them had any experience in the food industry didn’t discourage them. McGaughran was working in heating and air conditioning and the Moutons (who are no longer involved with the venture) worked in construction.
The three men put every penny they had into the idea, and even borrowed a friend’s credit card to help make their dream a reality. With their first restaurant a success, the men later expanded with restaurants in Boulder, Greeley, Denver and Steamboat. The most recent and largest Rio location is Lone Tree, near Park Meadows Mall. This month, the Rio will cross the state line, when a seventh restaurant opens in Austin, Texas.
Many Rio regulars are former college students who now frequent the Lone Tree location. They’re considered “Rio alumni.”
“A lot of people who went to school in Boulder, Greeley or Fort Collins around the eighties or nineties have since moved here to raise families,” explains Katie Rafferty, Rio public relations. “It’s kind of a reminiscent and fun thing for them to come here. We get a lot more families at this location, but we also have couples that come one night a week for their date night. We get young couples without kids and older customers whose kids have grown up. We’re fortunate to get a good mix of people.”
Rio’s signature dish is their fajitas.
“Our fajitas come hot off the grill, with giant vegetables, tomatoes, and red and green peppers,” said Rafferty. “They also come with black beans and rice. It comes from a Guatemalan tradition.”
Salsas, green chili and tortillas are made fresh daily. Burritos are also a very popular menu item. According to Rafferty, Rio lunches are a great deal, as they’re basically the same amount of food at a discounted price.
The Rio’s one of the few Mexican restaurants that doesn’t use lard in its food. Rafferty explains that McGaughran is concerned with serving food that’s healthy.
“Pat enjoys a healthy lifestyle,” Rafferty said. “He does bicycling, and holds a non-competitive family bike race in Fort Collins every year. He doesn’t like things with preservatives. He also puts a lot of vegetarian options on the menu. A lot of people like our veggie enchiladas, which come in spinach or queso.”
McGaughran also works hard to provide a good working environment for Rio employees.
“One thing Pat’s been known to say is, ‘I don’t want to be at work at one in the morning, so why should I expect my employees to be there?’ We have reasonable hours and there’s good quality of life here,” commended Rafferty. “A lot of staff has worked for the Rio for the 20 years it’s been open. Some of our cooks have been here a long time, and we have a hostess and bartender in Fort Collins who have been here since the day the doors opened.”
In the evenings, the Rio is a lively place. The Lone Tree location has free live music every Thursday. On Tuesdays, free 30-minute salsa lessons start at 8:00 pm. Open dancing begins after the lessons. Monday is Family Appreciation Night; a balloon artist entertains from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., and children eat free.
“Pat is not just in the restaurant business,” said Rafferty, “He likes to entertain people and make them happy. It’s addictive for him, opening restaurants and creating community centers where people hang out and have a good time.”
The Lone Tree Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant is located at 9535 Park Meadows Dr. For hours of operation, or other information, call 303- 799-4999 or visit [http://riograndemexican.com].