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Rio Bravo is a new Tex-Mex haven on Wilmington
Los Hermanos Ramirez: Omar, José, Abel, Alejandro and Urivel.

Rio Bravo

444 Johnny Mercer Blvd (912) 898-2300

SO I GET a phone call the other day from a Peruvian chick friend, Melina, all excited and talking fast about this new place out on Johnny Mercer. That was the first surprise.

She’ll tell you plainly she’s never been all that into Mexican food—not really unusual since the two cuisines are pretty different—but here she is giving them a super-big shout-out.

Second surprise: Where? Isn’t that the Oyster House? OK, so even a foodie geek like me can be a teensy bit behind on the island skinny.

Rio Bravo is pretty new, just having opened their doors at the end of March and secured their alcohol licenses in mid-May.

Sitting in the corner of the shopping center on the eastside of Johnny Mercer, across the street from Kroger, they’re easy to find, and in case of dim night vision, look for the strings of bright Mexican paper- lace hanging outside and the pink glow of lights in the foyer.

The owner—and bartender—José Ramirez will make you feel right at home, and if he’s busy pouring drafts, well, one of the other four brothers will be happy to serve you.

That’s right, Los Cinco Hermanos Ramirez take good care of their patrons, and a friendly, jolly group of guys they are too. José, Abel (and his wife Ana at the register), Omar, Urivel and Alejandro are workin’ that party Mexicano vibe with big smiles to welcome all who come seeking some down-home Tex Mex goodness.

The other two hermanos, Rolando and Luis, have opened a Jalapeños out in Statesboro, so, if you like their food you’ll find some similarity in the menu here. The two restaurants are the Ramirez brothers’ first family venture; they spent years learning the trade after they arrived here, en masse, from Guerrero, Mexico and are very happy to at last have their own places.

If you’re gonna work your butt off in the restaurant biz, it’s always better if your own name is on the deed. After talking with them, I can see that joy in their attitude and their eagerness to please their customers.

I sat in the bar area where a big birthday celebration was going on—Gringolandia olé!—and mused upon their raucous, happy group, ordering dish after dish and even asking for the “special” menu.

Now, many Mexican places (and Chinese as well) have this hidden away for those in the know. It usually offers special dishes that most Americans wouldn’t cotton to, but, by golly, they know their home folks are gonna ask for. When I heard the party-goers call for it I had to ask to see it too!

Only five items at the moment, but this little menu contains a distinct core of authenticity—if you want to try something besides the usual tacos, quesadillas and burritos, dive into this: aguas frescas—fresh juices like tamarindo and jamaica (hibiscus) as well as horchata (sweet rice milk); tres generaciones (a Guerrero dish), made with grilled chicken, pork and shrimp; caldo de camarron (rich seafood soup with shrimp); mojarra frita (whole, flash-fried tilapia, well-seasoned, crispy and delicious!) and the last—street tacos.

Arroz con mariscos and tacos de lengua.
Arroz con mariscos and tacos de lengua.

When I asked my server (hermano Alejandro), what this entailed, I heard the magic words, “tacos de lengua”! If you’ve never tried it—“de lengua” means ‘tongue —it’s not what you’re envisioning. This traditional dish of beef tongue braised in garlic and onions, finely chopped and served with sliced radish, fresh cilantro and minced onion, topped with salsa verde and rolled up in a warm corn tortilla....well, it’s just heavenly.

I was also impressed with the arroz con mariscos, a generous serving of red rice with a mound of grilled shrimp, crab and scallops, covered in a gloriously decadent cheese sauce—save a bit to take home, ‘cuz it’s also excellent the next morning with your scrambled eggs!

Studiously avoiding the usual fajitas and such, when I saw chiles poblanos, I went for it: two BIG chili peppers stuffed, one with beef, the other with chicken, dipped in batter, deep fried to mouthwatering tenderness then topped with a rich cheese, tomato and meat sauce, plus rice and beans. This is accompanied by a separate plate of shredded lettuce, sour cream, chopped tomatoes ‘n’ onions, and guacamole and a side of warm tortillas which is gonna definitely take care of any hunger pangs you may be suffering!

Speaking of guacamole...that is one of the supreme “tells” for me in a Mexican restaurant—if it’s bad, I won’t be back. If it’s great, like the creamy yet firm, chunky, home-made style dip here, I’ll be back—and ordering an extra dish!