El Rio Grande Restaurant celebrates 60th anniversary

Serving old school Tex-Mex from unassuming digs on Airline Highway, El Rio Grande Restaurant marks its 60th anniversary this Monday, a notable accomplishment amid Baton Rouge’s ever expanding culinary landscape. Known for homemade enchiladas and tamales, and secret menu items ordered by die-hard fans, the restaurant was founded by Severo “Joe” Urdiales in 1962. His son, Raul, has run it since 2003, but “Mr. Joe,” 91, still stops by to help with kitchen prep and to say hello to the eatery’s regulars, many of whom call themselves the “50-year club” reflectig how long they’ve frequented the restaurant, Raul Urdiales says.

“We have a bunch of loyal customers, and we’ve become friends with them over the years,” he says. “We just give a good product and they come back for it.”

El Rio Grande serves old school Tex-Mex from scratch. Favorites include tamales, chips with homemade salsa, enchiladas con huevos and avocado salad.

Located across Airline Highway from Frank’s (another venerable Baton Rouge eatery), El Rio Grande is a smallish spot with a divey, throwback vibe. Immediately inside, a glass case is crammed with family photos and memorabilia collected over the restaurant’s lengthy tenure, including a prized photo of actor Steve McQueen, who dined here a few times while filming the 1966 movie, Nevada Smith. Singer Marty Robbins, actress Joan Fontaine and actor and singer John Schneider have also been patrons; in fact, Schneider, who lives in Holden, is a regular, Raul says.

El Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant

The restaurant’s interior is sectioned into a kitschy bar area, a main dining room and a side party room where a long table and a stack of bright-hued sequined sombreros awaits celebrants. Splashes of bright yellow, green and azure trim the restaurant’s walls, putting a fine point on its quirky charm. The menu is comprised of welcoming categories like tostadas, tacos, fajitas, burritos and enchiladas, as well as combination plates that mix and match all of the above. Chips are served with fresh salsa that Urdiales prepares from scratch almost every day. It’s made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers and spices, he says.

Top-selling margaritas include fresh squeezed lime, top shelf frozen and the Ra-ru, made with a splash of cranberry juice.

The bar serves several different frozen and on-the-rocks margaritas, including the Ra-ru, named by Raul for customers who struggled to pronounce his first name correctly. The rocks-style drink features fresh squeezed lime juice and a splash of cranberry juice.

The most popular item on the menu, he says, has long been the enchiladas, which can be ordered with cheese, chicken or beef. Cheese enchiladas can also be topped with over easy eggs. The secret to the enchiladas, Raul says, is that the kitchen dips corn tortillas into homemade enchilada sauce before filling them. This makes them more pliable and flavorful. The sauce, a rich ancho chili and beef mixture, is prepared with a recipe from his grandmother, a native of Monterrey, Mexico.

El Rio Grande’s party room holds sombreros for party goers.

Long-time patrons sometimes order off-menu items, like Mexican pizza and fried chicken tacos, in which a chicken-filled corn tortilla is dropped briefly in the deep fryer. It’s a dish Joe Urdiales used to make for his kids, he says.

Joe’s parents ran a Mexican restaurant in Lake Charles called El Rio. When he wanted to open a restaurant independent of his parents, he agreed to do it outside of Lake Charles, taking a look at Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Capital City won out. Joe opened his El Rio Grande on Airline Highway in a building that felt like a “carbon copy” of the Lake Charles restaurant, Raul says. Like El Rio, the Baton Rouge restaurant also includes an apartment above that members of the family have lived in from time to time.

El Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant

“Being new in town, the first day I sold $10,” Joe says. “The next day was an improvement. I sold $20. And I just stuck with it.

Meanwhile, Raul has been working in the restaurant since age seven.

“I was that little kid a lot of regulars remember, running around the restaurant breaking plates,” he says. “By age 12, I was waiting tables making $40 a night,” he says.

Quirky defines the bar at El Rio Grande.

The Urdiales family has had a big impact on dining in Baton Rouge. Joe’s brother Carlos Urdiales ran Carlos’ Mexican Restaurant for decades at Airline and Florida, and Carlos’ son Jim is well known for Mestizo, a popular modern Mexican restaurant that serves a number of seafood and keto dishes.

While once a haven for Baton Rouge eateries, North Airline Highway’s retail scene has declined in recent years, but Raul says he wouldn’t consider moving.

“Moving would hurt,” he says. “It’s home.”