Having retired (she thought) from the restaurant review business, Femme de Joie pretty much quit reading Yelp and so was unaware until very recently that the old El Rinconcito on Eureka Way isn't El Rinconcito any more, though it's still painted IN HUGE LETTERS on the side of the building. As it turns out, the Rios family who were partners in that venture split off to open Casa Rios Grill in the old Savory Spoon location.
The interior has been updated with snappy red paint. There are about fifteen tables for two or four plus a couple of booths, all of which sport black tablecloths with white paper place mats and crayons to create your own artwork (or keep little ones occupied). There's a row of bar stools along the left side of the counter in the back where you can sit for a beer or glass of wine. Specials are on a blackboard right when you walk in. The menu is a mix of Mexican and some American dishes like patty melts and salads.
Most Mexican restaurants offer chips and salsa with your meal. Multicolored chips were fresh and crisp, though obviously not made on site. But the pureed tomato-chile salsa was a treat - not too spicy - and the warm black bean dip was light years better than similar bean dips M. de Joie has tasted in other restaurants.
Chorizo egg scramble, $11.99
In addition to a few American breakfast staples like French toast, bacon and eggs, and veggie omelets, Casa Rios offers brunch dishes with more Mexican sensibilities, such as the chorizo scramble. Chorizo can be oily and too hot, but not here. Mixed with bell peppers and onions, topped with salsa fresca, the scramble was mild and flavorful without that heartburn-y feeling. A side of house-made fresh tortillas were just wonderful, tender and soft, a far cry from anything you buy in the supermarket. And though Mexican restaurants aren't really renowned for presentation, a pretty melon and berries garnish was a nice touch and showed the care going into each plate.
Casa Rios serves house-made menudo on weekends and Femme de Joie would have ordered that, but they also have pozole, which is hen's-teeth-rare on menus around here. Brick-red broth made from dried chilis (not chili powder) had a little bite; generous amounts of shredded pork and hominy packed the bowl with cubes of avocado and shreds of cabbage bobbing on top. A few squeezes from a wedge of lime added a slightly sour tang. If you think you can't bear the tripe in menudo, try this instead for your hangover. If you're not hungover, this is a wonderful warm-up on a cold morning.
Pork tamales. $11.99
Making tamales is a lot of hands-on labor - it's not something you just decide to whip up from scratch one night after work. Casa Rios makes their own. The masa was a bit on the doughy side but the shredded pork filling was moist, dampened with a bit of salsa verde, and served with homemade refried beans and rice.
Chile rellano, $10.99
Most restaurants use light green Anaheim chilis for rellanos. Nothing wrong with those; they're a good product. But dark green Poblano chiles have pizazz - much thicker flesh and crunchy texture, with a vegetable grassy flavor enhanced by a little heat (1,000 to 2,000 on the Scoville scale). Here they were blistered just long enough to soften, then filled with a niblet of mozzarella, coated in an eggy batter, and fried lightly to create an omelet-like robe. This treatment showed off the freshness of the chili and wasn't weighted down by lots of cheap cheese (that bete noire of Mexican restaurants).
Side order of a chicarrones gordita, spicy sauce, $5.99
Chicarrones are pork skin (or sometimes pork belly) that have been cooked, seasoning, dried, and then fried, and while they are indescribably delicious bits of piggyness, they are not diet or health food. A bowlful would be perfect to enjoy with a few beers while watching football, but probably not a good ongoing plan for every weekend through the rest of the season. "Gordita" means chubby, and so this is a chubby handmade tortilla filled with chicarrones and topped with a little sour cream, queso fresco, and cilantro. Lightly fried so that the tortilla puffs just a little, it's a substantial snack.
Casa Rios recently started serving brunch from 8 AM to 1 PM on weekends, and apparently the word isn't out yet. Service is friendly - almost too friendly, though that may have been because when we visited there were only one or two other tables with customers.
If Femme de Joie had a complaint about Casa Rios Grill, it would be that the portions are a bit on the modest side. However, that is tempered by the very fresh ingredients and high level of cooking coming out of the kitchen. They don't have combination plates the way most Mexican restaurants do, but this is much better food than most Mexican restaurants. Although it's a bit out of the central Redding area, it's definitely worth driving out to visit.
Casa Rios Grill, 1647 Hartnell Avenue, Suite 1 (near Victor in the Hartnell Castle strip mall), Redding CA 96002. 530-276-0646. Open Monday through Friday 10 AM to 9 PM, Saturday 8 AM to 9 PM, Sunday 8 AM to 4 PM. Beer and wine. Cards and cash; no checks. Parking lot. Follow them on Facebook.