March 17, 2011
Rio Grill Exec Chef Cy Yontz is a bad-ass. There are the tattoos, the goatee, the towering presence, the steely gaze, and the fact that, when asked what three things he would take on a desert island, he doesn't hesitate long, or include a walk-in freezer or a Japanese mandolin on the list.
"A bottle of tequila and two pigs," he says. "I could live off bacon."
Evidence of both said badassness and his penchant for pork exists simultaneously in his shanks. The "crispy pork shanks" ($19.99) undergo a journey that includes searing, duck fat soaking, forever-and-then-some slow roasting, a flash deep fry, electric green tomatillo sauce and dining ecstasy.
That voyage is captured on the food blog as part of a new video series by my colleague Joel Ede and me called "In Your Dish" (along with a look at the duck breast one local critic calls "the best on the Peninsula"). In coming weeks and months, look for more chef-centric portraits of the places you adore.
Here's the video:
Meanwhile Rio Grill (625-5436) itself, reigning Best Restaurant More Than 10 Years Old (before Fandango displaced them today in Best Restaurants results), is also embarking on a journey, one paralleling the one its younger sibling standout restaurant Montrio undertook last summer.
The bar is getting a major facelift and corresponding shift to craftier cocktails starring agave syrups and pickled goodies from Yontz, while its famous caricatures on the walls are swelling in character and population.
Owner Tony Tollner, GM Joe Valencia and Yontz are also evaluating and updating china, flatware and decor—and bordering on giddiness when talk turns to the debut of their new Santa Fe room, which will wield huge possibilities for tastings, private parties and other special events.
The tastiest turning point, though, is that Yontz—who learned the southwestern art of food alongside Mark Miller at Santa Fe’s landmark Coyote Cafe and has only honed it further here—is seizing a chance to claim greater creative control of the menu, which he says will see a fresh 50 percent shift. (Fear not, Rio freaks, the Chinese chicken salad and smoked chicken will stay.)
Change, as Yontz assured us, is good. Just look at the elements that accompany the duck alone—a duck confit tamale and squash chilequiles—and commence dreaming what he’ll conjure next.
The yum comes in just more than a month: The grand re-opening is scheduled for April 20, in concert with Rio’s 27th anniversary.
And, even as they ready for the remarkable makeover, lots is currently cooking. The 3-6pm Monday-Friday happy hour continues to be one of the best in town ($3 drafts, well drinks and house wines with half price apps like buffalo carpaccio and New Mexican chile onion rings), and new nighttime bartender Eli Severson is inventing elixirs like the "Pale Moon," a earthy, fresh and flavorful blend of Absolut Wild Tea, lavender, lemon juice, honey plus maraschino and créme de violette liqueurs and “El Fuego” martini with muddled jalapeño, cilantro and lime with Ketel One and Cointreau (they sold 25 Saturday).