Okay...when I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong!
When I was assigned to review Guy Fieri’s El Burro Borracho, I wasn’t sure what to think. I’d always found Fieri to be irritating. From his personal style - spiky, dyed blond hair, tattoos, and sunglasses worn backwards on his head, to his menus full of overly cool-sounding ingredients like Donkey Sauce and super-melty cheese, it all screamed “Bro” cuisine. Add to that a bad experience at one of his other establishments, and my expectations were skewed towards the negative.
BUT...when I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong! My friend Rhiannon joined me at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, we followed the signs that said “This way to Flavor Town” - one of Guy’s catchphrases which also irks me a bit - and despite my apprehensions, we had a really terrific meal!
Yes, the over-the-top Mexican/Southwestern fare was spicy and delicious, the cocktails were potent, and our servers were efficient and outgoing! From Sal, the manager, to our waitress who went by the nickname Enchilada, to Emmanuel, our food runner, we felt like part of a loud, boisterous, well-fed family!
After a quick tour of the space, highlighted by a mural by Fieri’s tattoo artist, depicting the chef’s lifeline, we settled in at our table to look at the menu, which included an extensive collection of specialty drinks. I started with the Pineapple Habanero Margarita - Silver tequila, triple sec, pineapple and habanero purée, and house-made margarita mix. Served in an oversized glass, I loved the balance of sweetness from the pineapple and the sharp bite of the tequila, amped up by the strong heat of the habanero. Rhiannon chose the Burro Punch - tequila, rum, orange and pineapple juices, peach syrup, strawberry purée, topped with a float of dark rum. The liquors in this tasty, but deceptive cocktail, were masked by the sweet fruit flavors, and one could easily overindulge, if not careful. Rhiannon described it as the kind of drink where you find yourself on the floor, eventually, saying “Oopsie-boo-boo, I’ve had eleven!”
Fieri’s menu wasn’t divided neatly into the standard Appetizers, Entrees, and Desserts - there were tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, and other Southwestern staples, along with burgers, soups and salads, and “bocaditos” - Spanish for “small bites.” In order to sample a good variety of dishes, we made a few of our own selections, but also relied heavily on the suggestions of the staff - they know what’s good!
We began, appropriately, with Guy’s Guacamole - gorgeously green, fresh avocado, into which Emmanuel mixed Serrano chile, onion, chopped radish, and a cilantro-lime mixture. Although I missed the traditional touch of chopped tomato, it was still cool and rich, with just enough kick to wake our palates. The accompanying tortilla chips were non-traditional as well; heartier, almost like pita chips, they stood up nicely to the guacamole. We also sampled the Trash Can Nachos - a sort of signature dish. This unique presentation consisted of an actual can, with the bottom removed, filled with layers of tortilla chips, black beans, onion, pico de gallo, cilantro & jalapeños, Cotija cheese, a choice of protein - carnitas, in our case - and some of that “melty” cheese, added last, so it trickled down, coating all the ingredients evenly. After a quick bake, it was presented tableside, where the can was removed, revealing the cylindrical pile of nachos. Now, while the flavors were decent, I feel the baking made the textures off-putting. The chips had become something resembling wood, and the cheese was gluey, making the dish a bit unpleasant to eat. Our next offering was much more successful - one of my favorites, in fact: the Jalapeño Poppers - huge peppers stuffed with chorizo and queso casero cheese. Deep fried, sprinkled with crumbled Cotija cheese, they were served with a chipotle-buttermilk dipping sauce. Spicy enough to be sweat-inducing, these were some of the best poppers I’ve tried. The chorizo was an unexpected surprise, which gave them a smoky depth of flavor, and to my mind, they didn’t need the dipping sauce. A perfect way to cool down the heat of the poppers was the Shrimp Ceviche Tacos - plump, delicious rock shrimp, in crisp wonton taco shells, with all the fixings, including a cool, sweet pineapple-mango salsa, that balanced out the fire of the previous dish. The wonton shells were crispy but didn’t break apart on the first bite, which made for easier eating.
One of the biggest surprises of the night was a suggestion from our server; the Grilled Shrimp Cocktail - huge Gulf shrimp, grilled, then chilled, perched on the edge of one of those huge martini-shaped margarita glasses, and served with Mexicana cocktail sauce. Unlike standard cocktail sauce, made with horseradish and ketchup, this variation was more like a ceviche marinade, with fresh tomato, onion, citrus, and cilantro, along with, of all things, a touch of Fanta orange soda! Garnished with pico de gallo, avocado, cilantro & lime, and watermelon radish, this shrimp cocktail was an explosion of bright, bold, sunny flavors. So good!
After so many small plates, we wanted a more substantial dish - something more like an entree. We chose the Pork Chile Verde Burrito - a generous portion of flavorful pork shoulder wrapped in two immense flour tortillas, with a layer of cheese between. This double layer prevented the pork juices from soaking through the outer tortilla, making it less messy to eat. Additionally, the fixings that would’ve normally been wrapped inside - cilantro rice, ‘borracho’ beans, cabbage, and such, were actually served on the side, so the burrito itself was packed with meat! It came slathered half in salsa roja, half in salsa verde, and served with a spicy habanero-lime sauce that was practically nuclear, and the pork, while a bit too salty, was still tasty and satisfying.
We were both feeling as overstuffed as that burrito, but we still had room for dessert. There were 4 selections, and we were going to try one...ONE! Well, the manager came out and told us the chef was sending out one of each! The House-Made Churros - essentially long Mexican crullers. Warm and fluffy on the inside, with a lightly crispy outside, they had a touch of chile de arbol, were sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and served with dulce de leche dipping sauce, and Chocolate Abuelita - a Mexican chocolate sauce with a hint of cinnamon. The Fried Ice Cream was a nearly soccer ball sized sphere of vanilla ice cream, coated in a crust made from cereal and Texas toast. Delicious. The Coconut Tres Leches Bread Pudding combined the texture of a great bread pudding, with the traditional sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk, making it firmer and heartier than the usual tres leches dessert. Cool and creamy, it was deliciously coconutty! Lastly, there was the Chocolate Flan Cake - a base layer of double chocolate fudge cake topped with what seemed a cross between traditional flan and cheesecake. This was absolutely my favorite; firm, creamy, yet not too sweet, and a fabulously decadent way to end the meal.
So yes...I was wrong. I had confused Fieri’s brash TV personality, with the chef who wants to please and surprise his diners with the big, bold Southwestern flavors he clearly adores, and which he used so well here. I never thought I’d say it, but I’d definitely return to Flavor Town; to El Burro Borracho.