Ray’s Rio Bravo offers a fiesta, but not much new

Ray’s Rio Bravo

6450 Powers Ferry Road, N.W., Sandy Springs

In the ’80s and ’90s, Rio Bravo Cantina was rockin’. Owner Ray Schoenbaum grew his casual Tex-Mex concept from one location to four in Atlanta and even expanded to Florida and Tennessee. In 1995, Applebee’s acquired Rio Bravo Cantina, opened units throughout the U.S., then sold it all to Chevy’s. By the early 2000s, Rio Bravo was but a memory.

Now, Rio Bravo is back, this time in the space formerly occupied by Peter Chang Chinese Cuisine in Sandy Springs, and with original recipes that the Rio crowd enjoyed.

A lot has changed in 30 years, though. Diners are more sophisticated. We ask questions like, can you tell me about the queso dip appetizer? To which an enthusiastic server replies that the queso dip is available as yellow or white cheese. We wonder, what kind of cheeses those might be, since a lot of varieties of cheese are yellow or white. My group picked yellow and, upon tasting it, we likened it to melted Velveeta with green chiles.

The food at Ray’s is better for when you just want to fuel up. Portions are generous. Tacos, available with corn or house-made flour tortillas, come three to an order. Fajita platters are piled with protein — chicken, skirt steak and jumbo shrimp — along with beans, rice, grilled peppers and onions, sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo. If you somehow still have room for dessert, a chocolate chimichanga covered in chocolate sauce, whipped cream and vanilla ice cream will most certainly fill you up.

Ray’s also offers a wide selection that makes it easy to please a large party with varied tastes. Quesadillas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, salads and even slow-smoked ribs — there is something for everyone. And everyone will be contented with complementary fresh-fried chips that are surprisingly light, not greasy in the least. They tasted terrific dipped in the smoky salsa verde that’s available upon request. (The standard salsa at Ray’s is a chunky, mildly spicy tomato version.)

Yet, a number of dishes at Ray’s lacked freshness. Scallops and snapper in the Del Mar enchilada tasted fishy instead of fresh. So did the fried grouper taco. In the case of a jalapeno-lime shrimp quesadilla, melted Monterrey Jack masked the taste of the seafood. Although prepared in-house, the guacamole didn’t burst with the same bright flavor as one made tableside.

A shredded chicken taco and a chicken fajita were serviceable, but a chicken tortilla soup tasted like a thick tomato vegetable soup made from canned ingredients, with not a single tortilla strip to be found.

Beef offerings fared far better. The skirt steak held a nice bit of char and each piece was succulent and tender, having marinated at least eight hours in a blend of soy sauce, pineapple juice and Ray’s secret spice blend. It was was wonderful as a fajita and atop a lunchtime Caesar salad that saw nice touches of roasted pumpkin seeds and crisped tortilla strips. Also flavorful were tamales starring house-smoked brisket. The brisket gets shredded and spooned over corn masa before being hand-rolled in corn husks, steamed and topped with Texas chili.

Service was attentive on a weekend night when the place was packed, especially impressive when juxtaposed with a weekday lunch. On that visit, an order of house-made lemonade never arrived. The side dish options for a chicken torta (listed on the menu as rice, beans, french fries or fruit) were never offered; the torta arrived with fries. Even paying the bill took an excessively long time, despite a nominal crowd.

Despite those disappointments, Ray’s succeeds in offering a happy cantina feel, with colorful string lights and a monstrous tortilla machine near the entrance that can keep squirmy kids entertained long enough for mom and dad to finish their margaritas. Mariachi minstrels bring extra energy to the restaurant on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. They serenaded my table with a rendition of “Guantanamera” that was lively enough to make even my server stop and dance.

Ray’s is not bringing much new to the table. At Ray’s, you’ll dine on gringo Mexican that was popular decades ago. Some diners will be feliz with that — and will happily sing along as the mariachi band strums “Feliz Navidad.”

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