Cowboy Comfort Food 

Rio Grill reinstates the friendliness of the Old West.

Despite the warning label, meat is in. One need only look at the proliferation of steakhouses flourishing in Tucson to see that the real deal is beef, preferably with a martini and followed by a cigar. Unfortunately, along with that trend, the concept of à la carte dining has also gained popularity. This is a polite way of saying that at many of the newer venues, your steak will arrive in its glory, alone. As you begin to build a meal around your meat, you will pay for every additional side that is added. Forget about any damage dinner may have inflicted on your arteries; receiving the bill alone can induce cardiovascular distress. What a delight, then, to find Rio Grill, our own locally grown cure to the blight of chain steakhouses creeping across town.

Independently operated, Rio Grill is the brainchild of wunderkind Bob Slavin and chef Eric Wadlund (formerly of Terra Cotta and McMahon's). Wisely, this duo didn't choose to bank on their reputations by opening either a steak house or a strictly Southwestern venue. Instead, they built on Wadlund's solid repertoire, counted on Tucson's love of Americana, and decided to dish up what they bill as American-Western cuisine, your basic cowboy comfort food.

The great aspect of comfort food is its pure simplicity. It's meant to console, and it speaks to us directly. Eat me, it says. And you do. Operating at such a basic and intuitive level, it is easy for a chef to miss the special note that floats someone back to a blissful state of nostalgia. Despite its simplistic appeal, comfort food always runs the risk of disappointment. No one's apple pie is as good as your mother's apple pie, even if Mom used Crisco and burnt the crust. So it is a pleasure to discover Rio Grill's menu comes across with a strong and sure delivery.

True to form, Wadlund's approach is simple. He uses quality ingredients and doesn't fuss. His well-trained touch results in elemental and pleasing pairings with nary a contrivance. Meat certainly plays a role in cowboylandia, and Wadlund's menu offers up plenty of options. From the grill, a hardwood mix of mesquite, hickory and cherry, you can order grilled Sterling salmon, ahi tuna, ribeye steak or beef tenderloin. From the spit you can order a half chicken, Maple Leaf Duck, a smoky double pork chop, rack of lamb or carved prime sirloin. The quality cuts and simple approaches make for hearty, winning combinations.

Although it's hard to know where to start, you have to start somewhere. Either the Smoked Salmon ($7.50), a generous filet of house-smoked salmon served in a righteous lemon crema, or the roasted portobello with fresh mozzarella served with a drizzle of pomegranate juice and olive oil ($5.95) are both standout appetizers that do exactly what they're meant to: open up and stimulate the palate.

Although they were listed as an entrée, we found that the fresh vegetable tamales ($8.50) made a great appetizer. Two feather-light masa tamales are served on a light bed of sautéed vegetables, in a fire-roasted tomato sauce, nicely spiked with green olives. With individual flavors isolated on the plate, the holy trinity of corn, tomatoes and chile are all given equal turns. The satisfying simplicity of this dish testifies to a well-trained hand.

The same can be said of the grilled shrimp and crispy root-vegetable salad ($9.95). A deceptively light plate featuring mixed greens and five large grilled shrimp, the right complexity and contrast surfaces with the crunch of crisped parsnip, carrot and turnip. The ancho-orange dressing brings the right sparkle and zip to pull all the flavors together, making this either a satisfying, light entrée or another expansive way to start a meal.

Should the carnivores in your crowd be restless, dive right on in to the Smoky Sticky Double Pork Chop ($13.95). Two enormous chops, smoky pink and carrying a hint of the hardwood grill, ride it on out on the Big Daddy macaroni and cheese, a voluptuous and rich twist on a classic American favorite. An easygoing combination, this dish reminds you of what it means to be young, impulsive and cholesterol-free.

The Beef Tenderloin ($19.95), a slice-with-your-fork tender filet, is an unpretentious salute to meat and potatoes. Served in intensely rich gravy, studded with roasted bleu cheese chunks and wild mushrooms, this plate could tempt the most stalwart vegan. Tender broccoli and lightly sautéed spaghetti squash make a delicate foil and favorable companions in an otherwise rich plate.

Fried Spicy Red Chili Shrimp over spiral pasta with smoked Gouda cream ($14.50) will speak happily to the 9-year-old that lurks within most of us. Heavily breaded, the shrimp are deep-fried, then perched atop a creamy macaroni and cheese. Although there is a bit of spice in the shrimp, this dish was most closely attended to by the minors in our party.

Dessert is a blessed event at Rio Grill, and somehow in keeping with the carefree and comforting appeal of the menu. Don't miss the pineapple upside-down cake ($4.50). This small, tender cake is a bright and buttery surprise, studded with blueberries and pineapple, and a sunny splash of raspberry syrup. Such uncomplicated pleasure can be found in a freshly baked cake, and this small wonder will leave you feeling like the world is one big happy playground again.

A house-made crème brûlée served with Mexican wedding cookies is a plain and simple way to conclude the meal. The brûlée was a little on the eggy side with a heavy glassy crust. Still, the Mexican wedding cookies provided a nutty twist and balanced out the flavors ($4.95).

Probably because of the incredibly reasonable prices and satisfying fare, whenever we've visited Rio Grill, business has been brisk. Although the view is still the same jeweled city skyline that was there when Boccata inhabited the space, that's the only reminder that this was once an Italian venue. Now, the rustic setting has a low-key appeal. Faux leather vinyl table coverings, muted earth tones and fairly generic Western Americana art don't really tug the space in any one aesthetic direction. But then again, that becomes part of the appeal.

This isn't about being tony or pretentious; this is about comfort, plain and simple. Kids are welcome; the service is attentive but casual. Orders permitting, the chef will wander out onto the floor and start up a friendly conversation. This is what Tucson wants to be, or perhaps remembers once being, but somehow forgot along the way. It's refreshing to see that the Old West has found a new home. Should you want to visit you might want to call ahead for a reservation, or visit online and make a reservation there: www.tucson-riogrill.com.

Rio Grill. 5605 E. River Road. 299-7746. Serving dinner Monday through Friday 4-9:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 4-10 p.m. Full Bar. MC, Visa, Disc, AmEx, checks, cash. Menu items: $3.95-$21.95.

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