Roberto Cardeņas built up a legion of fans during his years preparing meals at leading Mexican restaurants in Bend.
His culinary creativity as executive chef at both La Rosa and Amalia's won the admiration of diners who enjoy the subtleties of fine Mexican cuisine, beyond the usual tacos and burritos.
Cardeņas took a step aside a couple of years ago, then during the summer of 2011 quietly opened a new restaurant, Rio, in Madras. Now he has brought his deft touch back to Deschutes County, at the high profile FivePine Lodge & Conference Center in Sisters.
Rio Distinctive Mexican Cuisine was established in November next to the Sisters Athletic Club. It is the fourth business to occupy the spacious restaurant in fewer than five years. Pleiades, which opened in March 2008, was succeeded first by Chloe, then by Thyme.
Hopes are high that Rio, with its more casual approach to dining and lower prices than its predecessors, will be the one to persist.
And Cardeņas, a native of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, has hit the ground running. In particular, his sauces — blueberry-chipotle cream, seven-pepper-and-mango mole, to name but two — are unique in this region.
“All of our sauces are my own creation, based upon recipes that have been in my family for generations," Cardeņas said.
Service and sauces
The FivePine restaurant occupies a handsome space, one that easily accommodates more than 80 diners in one sitting. At its heart is a suspended ceiling that reads like a star chart, pinpoints of light mimicking a night sky.
Like other features of Rio's decor, it is a holdover from previous tenants. In fact, there's really nothing about the atmosphere here that says “Mexican," unlike the original Rio in Madras. Cardeņas said he plans to hang some paintings to better reflect the ethnic style of the cuisine.
Service is friendly and courteous, often handled directly by Cardeņas or his partner, Rocio Villalobos, when they are not preparing dishes in the kitchen.
But while the ambience and table service may be understated, the food itself speaks loudly.
My first meal at Rio, for instance, was a lunch of “pollo en crema de jitomate" — in other words, chicken in a tomato cream sauce.
This was no Campbell's soup recipe, but Cardeņas insisted, “It's not complicated." He paired rosemary and bay leaves with roasted tomatoes, then added chipotle peppers to a cream sauce made with kernels of sweet yellow corn. The sauce was then served over a saute of strips of white chicken breast with onions, cilantro and roasted green peppers. It was delicious.
The meal was served with flour tortillas, Spanish-style rice and refried pinto beans, accompanied by a fruity red-cabbage slaw.
Soup and seafood
When my regular dining companion joined me in Sisters on my return to Rio, we shared a bowl of soup to start.
“Flor de calabaza," a squash-blossom soup, matches pureed yellow squash and zucchini flowers in a chicken-broth base, with rosemary and a drizzle of butter. It was a nice blend, but lacked a touch of additional flavor. Clove came to mind. Or merely a dollop of sour cream?
Guacamole dip, made tableside with dried cascabel, huajillo and arbol peppers, was chunky and excellent. It combined tomato, onion, cilantro and even mango with the usual avocado and lime juice, and made us forget that the red salsa was too watery for a chip to properly hold. (Cardeņas had made a thicker batch by our next visit.)
My seafood entree — “Rio callo y camaron," or scallops and shrimp — offered a half-dozen large tiger prawns, marinated with lemon in ceviche style, served upon a bed of sauteed baby spinach and thinly sliced mushrooms with a very chocolaty mole sauce. It was accompanied by a serving of lightly seared scallops with a cream sauce of smoky-flavored, fire-roasted chipotle peppers. It was quite wonderful.
My companion was less impressed by her carne asada. The butterflied filet of beef was poorly seasoned and was grilled medium well, with not a touch of pink left in the meat. Although it was served with sauteed onions and peppers, she found the accompanying tomatillo sauce, presented on the side, didn't compensate for a lack of flavor and moisture.
Perhaps my favorite dish of all was the chile relleno vegetariano that I enjoyed at Rio Madras.
A large Anaheim pepper was sliced lengthwise and stuffed with fresh spinach, zucchini and corn kernels, roasted with a blend of Monterey Jack and queso fresco that melted into the vegetables. It was served upon a layer of chipotle cream sauce, drizzled with a sweet red-beet reduction.
I enjoyed the atmosphere of the intimate Madras cafe, even more than the Sisters restaurant. Peach-colored walls framed colonial-style arches and a line of tequila bottles that stood atop a long shelf. Service was very friendly and attentive.
In Sisters, Cardeņas is awaiting the advent of warm spring weather so that he can open a beautiful patio on the south side of the highway behind his building. No man-made decor can match that of nature, and at FivePine, whose beautiful ponderosas rise above the patio in the heart of the resort, the environment will be a perfect complement to Rio's food.