Vibes & Vices: River Cafe

Despite hiding in plain sight at the heart of Vallarta, Isla Cuale may be one of the city’s more understudied sections. More than a few visitors have flown away again without ever having known it existed, and there’s a fair share of locals who haven’t taken the time to wander onto the urban island either. It’s kind of a shame, given the presence of places like River Cafe along this shaded, scenic stretch just inland from the Malecon.

The Vibes: Surrounded by a selection of small shops selling souvenirs and sundries–had a great debate about the price of a pair of earrings before dinner–River Cafe offers especially sophisticated surroundings for an early evening meal. The intimate glow of string lighting and a serenade from Sade beckon my assistant and I to tables overlooking the river, and after stopping to greet a few familiar faces, we settle in to take in the scenery.

River Cafe takes full advantage of the tropical jungle backdrop to create its appealing atmosphere. Lush plant life peers through the fourth wall of the open air dining room, eavesdropping on the lively conversation of the clientele while silently swearing to keep their secrets. Themed pieces by local artists enhance the environment, engaging the gaze with visual treats in every direction. The Sun has just set, and with a pitcher of sangria we are set for the setting.

The Vices: In case you didn’t know, the Caesar salad is a Mexican original. Created by an enterprising restaurateur in Tijuana during the first quarter of the 1900s, it is not eponymous to the emperor, but the entrepreneur of an eatery. As if it needed something besides booze to attract visitors from north of the border during the Prohibition years, Caesar Cardini brought this dressing to the world as a permanent addition to the human pantry.

Almost a century after its invention, a Caesar salad arrived on my table as a Restaurant Week selection at River Cafe because I really enjoy authentic Mexican food. This was a worthy take on the classic, and with a taste or two of the fried calamari my dining partner decided on as an appetizer, created an excellent opening act for this evening’s presentation.

After a basket of bread accompanied by delicious chili butter and the addition of a candle to our table in the twilight, the main course made its grand entry. A large portion of portobello chicken breast in a creamy sauce along with pasta and spinach was a substantial and satisfying second course, and I savored every bite I took, but with my sweet tooth in mind I dusted off a strategy from my childhood and saved some room for dessert.

I am not sure who decided to fry ice cream for the first time, and I’ll leave you to google that one yourself. Still, what we can take away from the fact that it exists is that the person in question possessed three characteristic traits of this singularly sapient species: ambition, curiosity, and mild insanity.

These are the qualities that have gotten me to where I am in life (wherever the hell that is), and so whenever I get a chance to appreciate their crazy contribution to our culinary tradition, I take advantage of it. Certainly a good call here…coated in a crisp outer shell and drizzled in chocolate, the flavorful scoop of vanilla ice cream was a perfect finish to our meal. As I leaned back in my chair with some after-dinner mint, Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” was yet another morsel of perfection at the table we shared that evening…from start to finish, dinner at River Cafe felt like a true privilege.

The Verdict: Restaurant Week gives folks like me a chance to try out some new and interesting possibilities around town, and happily River Cafe was one of the best choices I’ve made so far. With an alluring atmosphere and plenty of tempting choices on the menu, an evening at this oasis on the Rio Cuale is without a doubt one well spent. Maybe I’ll catch you there.

Info: Isla Rio Cuale 4, Zona Romántica

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AJ Freeman
AJ Freeman is an adventurous spirit, serial friendmaker, and general enthusiast. He lives his everyday life hoping to demonstrate the nearly infinite potential for discovery and wonder on this small wet rock orbiting a dim yellow star in the backwoods of the Milky Way.