Pio Loco first opened in 1986 in a former pizzeria on Lake Boulevard as a non-traditional Mexican restaurant; when the old gymnasium at the Pine Street School became available in the mid-1990’s, Chef Jeff Cerasaro upped sticks and moved to the considerably more roomy downtown location. Within the past few months Pio Loco has undergone some pleasant changes: the bar was moved downstairs, a dance floor was added along with a plant-filled room divider, and a new earthy Mediterranean color scheme completed the update.
About 10 years ago the mainly quasi-Mexican menu expanded to include fusion dishes such as Pork Tenderloin Naranja (pork with sake, mandarin oranges, and cilantro) and sides like risotto and balsamic spinach. In 2007 the Mexican/fusion dishes were scooted to the side when Cerasaro decided to turn the emphasis to seafood. Whether fish didn’t sell well or customers requested the old menu is unknown, but within a year the Mexican dishes were being featured again. A few fish dishes remain (salmon with pesto, halibut con grejo) as do the salads, a few mainstream entrees (rib-eye steak, filet) and some Asian-influenced appetizers (ahi sashimi, ahi poki).
It seems, however, that more attention is currently being paid to the aesthetics of the interior than to the quality of the food coming out of the kitchen. Femme de Joie remembers eating at the Lake Boulevard location, and then at the newly-refurbished Pine Street restaurant, and enjoying the food greatly. Over the last few visits she has noticed a definite decline in taste and presentation, uneven execution of many of the staple dishes, and some oddly inconsistent pricing.
The first thing that caught M. de Joie’s eye on the menu was that the first basket of chips and bowl of salsa are complimentary; order another and that’s $1.00 for chips and $1.50 for salsa. Now, M. de Joie will defend any restaurateur’s right to turn a profit, but it is standard practice at every other Mexican restaurant to simply bring another round of both when requested and figure that into the overall cost of each meal. Further, the hot garlic salsa may or may not still be offered; on one occasion when M. de Joie requested some hotter salsa, the busboy looked confused and said there wasn‘t any other hot sauce. But on another visit the garlic salsa was being served to all tables.
Among appetizers, the oyster shooters (two for $2.95) are a good bet: two raw oysters, each in its own cup, covered in a sweet, chunky cocktail sauce. These are light and fresh, what a good appetizer should be: to whet the diner’s appetite for dishes to come, not sate it with fatty, heavy globules of melted cheese or deep-fried vegetables with gooey dipping sauce.
A lunch special: bay shrimp and avocado wrap with green salad, smoked salmon dressing on the side. This should have been great but was very bland: the green salad was out of a bag — iceberg lettuce, shredded carrot-red cabbage, with a few diced tomato pieces. The smoked salmon dressing (95 cents extra) deserves decent greens but iceberg lettuce isn’t it. As for the wrap, there was no dressing on the filling to give it a creamy cohesiveness. While the avocado chunks were ripe and the shrimp were tasty, the entire wrap was disappointing and needed quite a lot of salt to give it some flavor.
A word about that green salad: a note on the menu indicates if a salad or soup is ordered as a side with a main course, it costs $2.50. However, if you order a simple side salad or cup of soup by itself, it costs $7.95. There is no other word to describe that but rip-off (usury not strictly being correct). Imagine this: you go to meet an old friend for lunch at Pio Loco. You order your meal but your friend isn’t very hungry or is on a diet. “I’ll just have a dinner salad.” When the bill comes, there it is: $7.95 for a small plate of iceberg lettuce. Your friend is not going to be amused and that is what you‘ll both remember about the food.
Burrito mejor with carne asada, $9.95.
The carne asada shreds were tasty enough and freshly grilled, but the rest of the ingredients – pinto beans, Napa cabbage, cheese – didn’t have much flavor on their own and contributed little but bulk to the entire dish. Verde sauce was pleasantly tart but the Spanish sauce tasted like it was out of a can. This appeared to have had the sauces poured over and then allowed to sit long enough for both the Spanish and verde sauces to soak into the tortilla and congeal. It was accompanied by yet another pile of shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes.
Beer battered halibut and chips, $14.95.
On a lunch outing, M. de Joie placed her order for halibut and chips with the waitress at 12:15. It arrived at table at 12:42 – and this when there were no more than six other tables occupied. The chips were out of a bag of frozen crinkle-cuts and had been sitting around cooling for a good ten minutes or more. The slaw was a mixture of shredded cabbage and carrots in an oily dressing without any discernable flavor, save a slight sweetness. Four small halibut chunks were long on breading and short on actual halibut; what fish was there had been overcooked to a wooly texture. The fish had apparently been fried at the same time the potatoes were.
A better-than-average wine list is offered with numerous selections available by the glass for a fair price, and a couple of local vineyards (Alpen Cellars from Trinity County, Alger Vineyards in Manton), as well as a tasty selection of beers (Kona Longboard, Tangerine Wheat).
Femme de Joie feels that Pio Loco’s kitchen is attempting to go in more directions than can be accomplished with success, and the overall menu is suffering due to a lack of focus. Mexican, fish, Asian, steak, multiple side dishes and appetizers — each one deserves care, high-quality ingredients, and individual preparation, and it appears they are not getting it. There is also a problem with getting completed dishes out of the kitchen in a timely fashion. During one visit, there was one waitress visible plus the hostess and a very hard-working busboy — not enough staff to cover such a large space.
While Chef Jeff can be seen emerging from his office now and then, does he ever go into the kitchen and cook? It’s a shame to see the food and service at Pio Loco slide downhill when it had been so good in the past, and after all the work that’s gone into updating the décor. Pio Loco was at first a fine addition to the downtown business community. It is hoped this is a very temporary decline and the situation rights itself.
Pio Loco, 1135 Pine Street in the Pine Street School (corner of Eureka Way), 530-246-2111. Open 11:30 to 4:30 Monday-Friday for lunch, dinner 4:30 to 9:00 PM Monday-Thursday, until 9:30 PM Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Vegetarian options. On site-parking. Cash, local checks, cards. Occasional live music. Club Coco Loco 9:00 PM – 1:00 AM Friday & Saturday. Website and menu at http://www.pioloco.com/
Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more.