By Judith Salkin
I’ve always believed that you can find some of the best food in the small, out of the way restaurants. That especially holds true when talking about exotic foods or foods that are as indigenous as “American” food.
Here in the Coachella Valley it’s that way with Mexican food, from the home-grown chain of Las Casuelas eateries from Palm Springs to La Quinta to long-time favorites like El Gallito in Cathedral City or El Mexicali in Indio.
Rio Azul, in Palm Springs, took over the space that once housed Livreri’s on Indian Canyon Drive. Run by chef-owner Ernesto Gastelum in the kitchen and his daughter, Dani, running the front of house, this Mexican restaurant isn’t your usual place.
Rio Azul is where Gastelum brings the flavors and cooking nuances he’s learned in the kitchen of his mother, grandmother and aunts in his native San Benito, Sinaloa Mexico.
Gastelum started his long career as a teenager, with a goal of one day owning a restaurant, working in commercial kitchens in Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley.
It is the attention to detail that he absorbed in kitchens such as Jillian’s, The Hideaway, Café de Beaux Arts and The Vintage Club that he brings to his modestly priced menu in Palm Springs.
The restaurant itself is a blend of golds, blues and reds of San Benito, with the dining room and patio in front and a bar in in the rear that features $5 house margaritas, along with a list of premium cocktails. But it’s definitely the food that keeps me coming back to Rio Azul. Gastelum makes all his own sauces and salsas, tamales and slow cooks the meats for tacos, burritos and seafood dishes.
Unlike some restaurants, Gastelum has limited the menu a bit, which works well for diners. There are still plenty of the usual selections of tacos, burritos, beef and chicken dishes, but there are also special plates created by the chef.
Prices are reasonable, with most entrees running between $13.95 to $17.95 for dinner and just a few slightly higher for steaks, seafood and the house special Parrilladas, which can run up to $75.95 for four diners.
On a recent visit a friend and her husband, started with guacamole which was made tableside. The advantage is that the guac can be adjusted to the tastes of the diners, in this case no salt and limited chopped jalapenos. A bit on the mild side, we still got all the creamy deliciousness of the avocado.
After the guac, my friend tucked into an order of Camerones Azul ($18.95), a savory-slightly spicy order of gulf shrimp sautéed with bell peppers, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, chipotle and jack cheese, served with rice and your choice of beans. The shelled shrimp were plump and the sauce formed a lovely covering for each crustacean.
Her husband, a man of bolder tastes, tried one of Gastelum’s more creative plates, the Parrilladas, a combination of citrus marinated grilled chicken and steak, bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with jalapenos and jack cheese and succulent quail served over a bed of sautéed peppers (including a couple of whole jalapenos) and onions and served with fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, cotija cheese, rice and choice of beans and fresh, hot tortillas. This mixed grill provided a delicious array of flavors, all tender and tasty. The quail, often hard to cook because of its small size, was juicy but kept its very distinctive flavor.
For me, I went with what could be a rather ordinary dish in the poblano relleno ($13.95; $15.95 with conchinita (slow roasted pork), chile verde or chicken; $16.95 with shrimp or steak). Rather than the milder, and in my opinion less tasty Anaheim chili, Gastelum uses poblano peppers which have a slightly more piquant flavor, stuffs them with cheese, tomato and garlic, and tops it all off with his house made ranchera sauce and poblano salsa with chunks of perfectly grilled, marinated steak and serves it with the ubiquitous rice and beans. This dish is great for someone with an aversion to really spicy food but looking for authentic flavors of Mexico.
During the week Rio Azul is open only for dinner (closed on Monday and Tuesday June through August), but on weekends, Gastelum opens the eatery at 11 a.m. to serve breakfast and lunch until 2:30 p.m. My best suggestion is bring a bunch of people who like to share and everyone choose a different breakfast dish to share and create your own buffet.
The machaca con huevos is a lovely mix of slow-cooked shredded beef, peppers and fluffy eggs; the chilaquiles are pan-fried tortillas smothered in a pasilla sauce, jack cheese and cotija cheeses and topped with scrambled eggs, sour cream and pico de gallo; and the Ortega chile omelet, that is topped with fresh Anaheim peppers, guacamole, ranchera sauce and jack cheese. All breakfast and lunch dishes are $9.95.
Whether it’s a leisurely weekend breakfast or weeknight dinner, Rio Azul is a worth checking out.
Where: Rio Azul, 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday (closed Monday and Tuesday June through August); 5 to 10 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; happy hour starting at 4 p.m.
Contact: (760) 992-5641; rioazulpalmsprings.com