Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cool City Jackpot Lunch

I’m dead-set against the idea of bringing casinos to the City of Flint. Whose screwball brainchild was this anyway? Don’t they know I have an addictive personality and an unhealthy love of gambling? Besides, the time for considering casinos in Flint has long past. If we were going to entertain such an idiotic idea, we should have parlayed it with the disaster that was AutoWorld. We could have had an automotive themed casino right on the banks of the Flint River.

We could have had slot machine Hummers or card tables shaped like Cameros. The potential for such a merger of stupidity was ripe at the time, but mercifully it never happened. Some things just aren’t worth gambling on.

But some things certainly are.

Like the Cool City Art Auction I went to last night in downtown Flint. What I saw was yet another example of the local art community’s commitment to reasserting a robust cultural identity in the downtown area. They gambled on this idea a few years ago, and it has paid off in spades. Hundreds and hundreds of people came out for the event last night, the downtown restaurants were packed, and the bars were hopping. It’s one of the busiest night’s I’ve seen on the Saginaw Street strip outside of the major summertime events. And since all of the art was for sale, I was able to scratch my gambling itch and actually have something to take home with me at the end of the night.

What made the night so perfect was the combination of art, food, drinks, and music. Each venue—Churchill’s (The Creative Alliance), Buckham Art Gallery, The Capital Theatre (Art at the Market & Flint Handmade), and The Greater Flint Arts Council Gallery—supplied complimentary food catered by local eateries, free wine, a wide variety of bottled beer, and some great beer on tap. Plus live music by local musicians. All of this entertainment, and the opportunity to bid yourself silly on art of almost every medium imaginable, cost twenty five bucks a person.

The event also gave the Flint art community a big financial shot in the arm because funding cuts to the arts and tough times for nonprofit organizations have sidelined some local galleries, while others are fighting for their lives. It was great to see such overwhelming support from so many local patrons. The gamble paid off for our art community, and this event will no doubt continue to grow even more successful in coming years.

As we were driving home from the Art Auction I thought about another gamble I took this week. I had lunch with Stephanie on Thursday.

Wait. That didn’t come out right. Stephanie’s a sure bet when it comes to good lunch partners. It was the lunch experience itself that left us a little frazzled and confused. We decided on a whim to go to El Rio Ondo in Davison. The problem was I didn’t have time to look up directions and it had been several months since my friends Susan and Cathy had told me about it.

Stephanie and I were feeling adventurous though, so we set out to find the place on our own. We hadn’t seen each other in two weeks, so Steph filled me ear with all the gossip I missed while I was away, as I tried my best to get us to El Rio Ondo. I tried Davison Road. I tried Irish Road. I tried little strip malls. I tried big shopping plazas. Nothing.

Finally I stopped in a parking lot and asked two guys who were sort of milling around aimlessly. Lucky for us they knew the area and pointed us to the quickest route. I’ll save you all the trouble of being overly adventurous by telling you El Rio Ondo is on the corner of Davison Road and Irish Road. It’s in a grubby little building in a grubby little plaza. Don’t let that scare you away, though. El Rio Ondo turned out to be the best Mexican restaurant we’ve eaten at all year. Better, even, than our golden child, El Potrero.

Serving authentic Mexican cuisine since 1979—that’s what it says on the front of the menu—El Rio Ondo is open seven days a week and even has free WiFi. As it turned out, we should have brought our laptops and taken advantage of the free service because our food service wasn’t available for the first fifteen minutes of our visit.

Apparently, somebody didn’t come to work when they were supposed to, and the one person who was there had to cook, wait tables, and deal with making, taking, and cashing out a steady stream of to-go orders. Two other groups came in right after us, and two or three people were waiting for their take-out orders, so we knew we were in for a wait.

Finally, somebody showed up to take over in the kitchen, and things began to progress a little more smoothly. After waiting another ten minutes for our drinks, we were treated to a fresh basket of chips—first basket free, second for a fee—and the best selection of salsas we’ve had yet. Four of them to be exact; two of them green and two of them red.

The red ones were mild but fresh and flavorful. One of them had little gobs of tomatoes and finely diced onion. The other was pureed and pretty runny, but it too was packed with flavor. I was really impressed with the green ones, the first a kind of a tart tomatillo salsa, pureed but with just enough body, and the other had the best smoky/earthy taste to it. All of them were good with the chips, but they were even better dumped liberally over our entrees. This quartet of yumminess is a definite nominee for the coveted Tater Tot Casserole Award. In fact, it’s gonna be almost impossible to beat this one.

The menu’s a bit of a mess organizationally, but once you orient yourself to it, the choices are plentiful. It starts, oddly enough, with the lunch specials listed first. This is followed by the Comida Para Los Ninos, or kids menu. What I love about this section is that of the five choices, there are no gringo options. :Most of the menu is taken up with the a la carte section, which I’m never a fan of. I don’t like piecing my meal together and then trying to figure out if it’s a better or worse deal than just ordering one of the entrees. My math skills suck.

I almost went with one of the twenty dinner selections, Beef Chimichanga Dinner, but I was really in a gambling mood so I ordered one of the daily specials, the Fish Taco Platter. And I hit the jackpot. These babies were off the chart. Three of them were situated on a platter with a good portion of beans and rice to go with them. The flour shells were perfectly cooked—not too crispy, not too pale—and the grease puddles under them a telltale sign of certain goodness. The fish, a finely chopped Tilapia, was generously stuffed into each shell and then topped with an absolutely to-die-for pico de gallo. El Rio Ondo earns a second nomination for the Tater Tot Casserole Award with this terrific house special.

Stephanie ordered off the lunch menu, which was also a great choice. At half the price of the dinner selection and with generous portions, the beef enchiladas, beans, and rice were rock solid. The enchilada sauce, not the bright blood red of some other versions, was a pale redish brownish but was packed with assertive pepper and tomato flavors.

The refried beans and rice had a lot of work to do to be worthy enough to sit on the same plate as our entrees, but they too impressed the hell out of us. The beans were smooth and creamy, but with pieces and chunks of some semi-smashed beans mixed in. The rice was even better. Not the lame tomato sauce-laden Spanish rice knock-off that too many Mexican restaurants serve, it was not too sloppy and not too dry, and it had a nice tomato flavor with an strong undercurrent of cumin. I could have made a meal of the beans and rice alone. El Rio Ondo’s beans are the third nominee of the TTC Award, and the Mexican Rice is the fourth nominee.

El Rio Ondo is a true Flint area gem, and if you haven’t been there yet, then put the remote down, get your shoes on, and get going. This is the real deal for authentic Mexican cuisine, and you’ll find yourself going back again and again and again. I know I will.


  1. I loved the art auction! It was my first time. I played guitar for Flint Handmade at the Capitol and got a great response; good vibes all around.

  2. Hannah,
    I'm so sorry I missed you. I really wanted to say hi and meet you formally. One of these days :)