By Ian S. Port
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"Tex Mex" conjures up many images — electrified fences frying human flesh, ZZ Top members getting their beards caught in a fan belt, and whatever genius first came up with the idea to deep-fry a burrito and call it a chimichanga. It's a Marty Robbins song on a continuous loop: Falling for a lil' Mexican girl, losing your burro, kickin' up dust, and using a cactus as a hat stand. Sí sí sen-yooorrr!
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But for too many years now, this culture has been used as a theme on an Applebee's menu, or chain-motel décor with colors like "adobe" and "sunset." It's been an excuse to put anything on a pile of nachos and then charge $13 for it.
So when you hear that the Bon Vivant guys (those influential booze consultants in S.F.) have opened a Tex Mex-themed bar, you wonder if it means blackened sliders can be far behind. But don't worry — these guys have done it right.
Rio Grande is a new pop-up bar in the Renoir Hotel, spurred along by the DIY neighborhood improvement association known as ATO (A Temporary Offering). Like a migrant worker, it's transitory, and will probably only last at this location for six months (though plans to move Rio Grande to another location at that point are definitely on the table.)
As soon as I walked in I was greeted with a wave and a smile from one of the bartenders, who looks like a long-lost Gibb brother and will heretofore be known by me as the Cutest Bartender in San Francisco (CBSF). They didn't have the drink I wanted, so he went somewhere to go get it for me, and came back with a glassful.
The border theme carries over to the décor, which is leather stools, tequila murals, the Virgin Mary, and both kinds of music, country and western. Strangely — yet strangely awesome — there is also a plethora of mirrors, as if Bob Mackie had bedecked the walls himself. It lent a weirdly futuristic vibe to everything, and I immediately got a Giorgio Moroder song in my head.
Rio Grande emphasizes beer in cans, whiskey, and tequila. You get two choices of beer: Tecate or Dos Equis. An old Jägermeister dispensary has been jerry-rigged to serve as a fountain for old fashioneds. The bartender and I were trying to figure out exactly when the Jäger craze died down and these contraptions began to gather dust. We decided it was precisely the time that Metallica got sober.
Here's the thing about temporary entities: You hold on tighter. You savor the experience. You lose your inhibitions. The bartenders here seem to get this, as do the patrons. These are the last days before Prohibition, or a week before the comet is due to hit earth. Lose your hang-ups. Be nice to each other. Get wasted.
It's a cash-only bar, and even though CBSF insisted on giving me my drinks for free, I wanted to leave a tip, so I headed out to the adjacent hotel to hit the ATM machine. Well, talk about border towns: I went from El Paso to Redwood City in two seconds. The Renoir Hotel was playing Muzak bossa nova and was — you guessed it — decorated in mauve and "adobe." Tourists were squished onto a sofa, chatting in foreign languages.
I could not wait to set foot back on my native soil.
The George Jones gave way to AC/DC and Def Leppard, and shit really started to pick up. Behind the bar, working with CBSF was Russell Davis, who has just been voted "Bartender of the Year" by Nightclub.com. Now he generally makes his living as a consultant, but he got his start in Texas and was poached by the Bourbon & Branch people a few years back, ending up in S.F.
Around about this time, a patron suggested that Russell do his "fire thing on the bar," which I assumed would be pouring some accelerant along the rim of the bar and then lighting it up, pure Cocktail fare. Big whoop. Instead, he walked down to the opposite end of the bar and leaned back, pouring some liquor into his mouth but not swallowing. He paused for a bit, and then before I knew it the entire bar area was engulfed in fire. I mean like dragon-breath, Backdraft, Siegfried-&-Roy pyrotechnics. He had spit it out and lit it; the flames extended at least 6 feet. It happened so fast that I could barely jump out of my stool and cower behind my friend. My forehead was hot from the radiating heat.
That, gentle reader, is some bad-ass shit.
To say that this brought the bar together as one would be an understatement. We were at our inner 5-year-old's birthday party, only with stripper poles and Wild Turkey. "Dr. Feelgood" came on and Russell set up another display, this time with glasses of beer and shots that exploded into a fireball at his very breath. Goodness gracious!
Run, don't walk to Rio Grande. (That's right, I said it, make a run for the border.) You have five months left.
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