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Sailing Down to Rio

[whitespace] Cafe Rio
George Saakestad

Rio Bravo: A seaside staple, Cafe Rio serves up the freshest seafood, as well as flavorful appetizers and desserts.

A seaside fixture facing Rio del Mar's palm-tree esplanade, Cafe Rio offers a lively port in any storm, plus some fine food to match

By Christina Waters

THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT Cafe Rio hasn't changed its sunny, laid-back ambiance since the day it was built. I lived just up the street in those days and enjoyed stopping by for oysters and champagne on the front patio. You can still soak up ocean views or climb up on a bar stool and dive into the middle of a wrap-around conversation. But the even better news is that the food has improved over the years, offered up in a long list of seafoods and pastas, most of which is turned out with style and finesse--fresh, tasty and custom-cooked.

The wine list has been upgraded, I noticed last week as Angela and I selected two reds from the by-the-glass listing. A Bear Creek Vineyard Zinfandel 1996 ($6.25) showed off this local winery's ways with old-vine grapes, while a goblet of Blackstone Merlot 1996 proved the right companion for the rich salmon cakes to come.

The salmon cakes--fat, freshly deep-fried yet almost innocent of any traces of oil--were sumptuously packed with moist salmon, lots of scallions and celery, plus the traditional breading. It was a tasty alternative to the ubiquitous crab cake. A spicy remoulade sauce, fiery enough to talk back to us, made the perfect dipping accompaniment. For $7.95, the portion was practically a meal unto itself, and we had to stop ourselves from filling up when our dinner salad and fishmonger soup arrived.

A well-made seafood gumbo, the fishmonger soup was a revelation. A beautifully designed broth, slightly thickened, implied plenty of sassafras and pepper and was filled with fish, prawns, zucchini, potatoes and carrots. We loved it, as well as the attractive salad of mixed lettuces, topped with sliced mushrooms and a handful of bay shrimp. We all know that bay shrimp have no flavor, but so what--they're just so cute.

Angela and I barely had time to exchange mini-gripes-- hers about the hostess's exposed navel and mine about the perfume wafting from the next table--when our entrees arrived.

A thick steak of Florida walloo ($19.95), the seafood special of the evening that was very much like swordfish, was grilled to moist perfection and served with an intense fruit salsa, then sided with garlic mashed potatoes. Very good garlic mashed potatoes. The tropical salsa combo of orange, pineapple, mango, Bermuda onion, red bell peppers and jalapeño worked the rich, white fish into a flavor frenzy.

Meanwhile, Angela's fettuccine didn't exactly work out as well. It was a generous portion of pasta smothered in a tomato sauce laced with calamari--the calamari was excellent--undercooked scallops, salmon, prawns and bits of pineapple and tomato ($17.95). It all felt a bit mushy, and devolved under our forks into a blur of monotonous, cloying flavor.

At our young busboy's "it moved me" recommendation, we tried the housemade banana cheesecake--complex, creamy and rich with banana essence--as well as a portion of chocolate mousse served in a sherbet cup (both $4.25). The mousse suffered from such institutional presentation, and would definitely have made a better impression if it didn't look like something from a corporate vending machine. The wonderful, homemade-tasting cheesecake more than made up for it. We both finished up all traces of the dessert, leaving not a crumb for gastronomic archaeologists of the future to discover.

It's always fun to spend time in the pretty white-linened dining room of Cafe Rio, ornamented in the time-honored resort style with cane-backed chairs, a menagerie of plants, stained-glass touches and lots of seaside sunset style. That the fish is fine and the appetizers are appetizing make the bargain even better. And in warm weather, that front patio is still one of the nicest places to contemplate Rio del Mar's endless summer.

Cafe Rio
Address: 131 Esplanade, Rio del Mar, Aptos
Phone: 688-8917
Hours: Dinners nightly from 5pm, Sun. from 4pm. Cocktails, appetizers from 1pm on weekends, from 3pm Mon.-Thu.
Entrees: Moderate
Ambiance: **1/2 Soothing view of palm trees and ocean, attractive rattan interior matched by popular bar.
Service: ** Pleasant, sometimes a bit generic, but always friendly.
Cuisine: **1/2 Seafood and California classics are presented with a sense of style, often excellent fresh catches and fun desserts.

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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