Budget Beat

Lunch under $10 at Cafe Rio

​Let's face it: Chipotles are as plentiful in the Phoenix metropolitan area these days as churches in Oklahoma or Starbucks coffee shops in DC: There's one on every corner. But Chipotle isn't the only place to get fast, tasty Mexican on your lunch break; for a change that may just make you question your routine, there's Cafe Rio.

Before moving its location to a newer site of suburban sprawl, Cafe Rio briefly called Ahwatukee home, and there was a fire truck parked outside around lunchtime nearly every day (no, not because there was an emergency). Now in Gilbert, Cafe Rio still serves a great lunch at an even better price - especially if you go for the daily special. On a recent Thursday, the special was Yolanda's Pork or Chicken Tamales with rice and beans and a drink (refillable), all for $6.50.

More lunch options for under $10 - you can even add chips and salsa - after the jump.

​We went with the pork tamales: The shredded pork here is the kind of thing you'll drive 20 minutes on the freeway for, with a tender consistency and a rich flavor that is both savory and sugary. We also ordered the Two Pork Enchiladas for $7.50 (these are a daily special on another day, with a list available online, so you can plan ahead if you know what you want) and another soda for $1.79

Chips and Salsa are a steal at $2.60, with Pico de Gallo and one very spicy salsa (it's lucky the firemen brought their hoses). The salsa - like the rest of the food here - is particularly memorable for its fresh taste. In fact, the line to order allows you to see your dish being made in front of you, with an open kitchen that puts the ingredients - and process - on display.

If two dips for your chips aren't enough, Cafe Rio makes their own Chile con Queso ($4.75), a cheesy, oddly sweet treat. The menu also features large and layered Tostadas, sure to satisfy those pesky officemates who demand salads.

Fast Mexican has a bad reputation; Sometimes it's completely inedible (or edible only at certain times of the early morning, under very specific circumstances), and sometimes the enthusiasm of the staff - with coordinated call-outs when someone orders the beef burrito, or whatever - seems designed to drown out the blandness of the food. Cafe Rio does an excellent job taking the best of what you expect to get - friendly service, inexpensive food, and large portions - and combining it with fresh ingredients and a bright and colorful, casual atmosphere.
For an added discount, start racking up stamps on one of their cards to earn a free meal: Unlike a snooty breakfast place that shall remain nameless, Cafe Rio accepts cards from years ago (or from your dryer, or under your fridge, or pulled from your dog's mouth) and combines stamps, so you can reach that free lunch all the faster.

Cafe Rio is located at 1939 E. Baseline Road, Gilbert, AZ 85233. The restaurant's new fall hours are 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. 

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Amanda Kehrberg
Contact: Amanda Kehrberg