Published October 20. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 1:56PM
EDITOR'S NOTE 2/28/12: Tio's is no longer open.
First it was Zavala's closing. Then La Cantina. New London diners who craved Mexican food could have been left wandering the city, their desire for good spicy cheesiness unfulfilled. Not to mention the kind of havoc that would have broken loose without a go-to place for a decent margarita.
But thankfully, New Londoners have still been able find those foods that make you want to break out your Spanish accent and the tequila since Tio Rodrigo's opened this summer.
Loosely translated as Uncle Rod's, it's named after New London's own wing king Rod Cornish, who runs Hot Rod's. So it was unclear just how "Mexican" the place would really be. But, depending on what you're looking for, that's not necessarily the most important quality. Tio's can deliver on a satisfying - perhaps overly so, judging by the portion sizes - meal with some good, classic Tex-Mex flavors.
The restaurant, at the far end of Bank Street's downtown stretch, is in a good spot to expand foot traffic to that part of the city and has some nice outdoor seating when weather permits. Inside, it's a bit reminiscent of Hot Rod's, featuring a bar and sports on large TVs, but its warm wood, cobalt lighting fixtures over the bar and some Spanish music give it more of a restaurant feel.
On a Saturday, it was busy but not packed, and a large group of us (who have frequented Rod's in the past) got a table right away. The beer selection is pretty extensive, including several Mexican options like Pacifico and Negra Modelo ($4.75) and the margaritas ($6.50) were good, not watered down or heavy on the sour mix as some can be.
Chips and salsa are free, which is great, but the salsa could use some kick. Uncle Rod himself was busy checking in on customers, and when our food took a while to come out, he offered some guacamole and habanero salsa "if we could stand it." It was an orange color, a bit creamy like a dip, but it was the extreme opposite of the free salsa on the table. Most of us dipped in just a corner of a chip, which yielded a heat that was initially tolerable but blossomed in our mouths, inducing large gulps of water/beer/margarita/guacamole. The guacamole, though simple, was a hit, made with large chunks of ripened avocados and nicely seasoned.
The chicken tamales ($5.95 each) were disappointing. The meat was pulled and spicy but a bit too salty, and the outer corn dough too dry (probably not steamed traditionally in the husk).
The burritos are Tio's main offering, and though they come in different styles - roll-up style, oven-melted or in a bowl - each dish has the same general ingredients. The restaurant says they're Mission-style, "after the over-stuffed, aluminum foil wrapped burritos made famous in the Mission District in San Francisco." I can't say how they'd compare to the original, but they definitely aren't joking around with the "over-stuffed" part. All of the portions were big, especially the oven-melted burrito grande ($12.95 with chicken). The soft flour tortilla was also filled with rice and pinto beans, and it was my personal favorite because it was smothered in melted Monterey Jack cheese. You have a choice of a red smoky chipotle or green mild chili sauce and it comes with a bit of all the fixins: lettuce, sour cream, corn and salsa.
The roll-up style burritos ($10.95 with steak) were wrapped in foil to easily pick up and eat with the same rice and bean filling but were drier without the cheese and sauce. The burrito in a bowl ($13.95 with shrimp) is made with the same ingredients except for the tortilla and is a nice alternative to salad (and probably the easiest to eat if you're more of a fork-and-knife person).
The meat and shrimp fillings were nicely seasoned and not overcooked, but we really liked the salmon in the soft taco special ($9.95). The three corn tortillas were unrolled, with little piles of lettuce, cheese, corn and salsa, and salmon on top. It was rubbed in a Cajun spice, which formed a nice crust. Our other non-burrito offering were the enchiladas ($7.95 with cheese). Like the oven-melted burrito, these had the advantage of lots of cheese and green or red sauce but easier on the stuffing inside. Rice and beans were served on the side instead.
The real Tio Rodrigo may not be known for Mexican food like he is for his wings, but there's time. In the meantime, the city can enjoy another new restaurant and a taste of a genre of food every town should have.