Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Rivas Mexican Restaurant\r\nChilaquiles $4.25\r\nNopalitos $4.25\r\nHuevos rancheros $4.75\r\nChimichanga $7.25
Spice Girls (and Boys)

Rivas doesn’t want to alienate its gringo customers, just enlighten them.


Rivas Mexican Restaurant

5434 River Oaks Blvd, River Oaks. 817-377-2424. Tues-Sat 6am-9pm. Sun 7am-2pm. Closed Monday. All major credit cards accepted.

ike the archaic, sun-baked sign outside town boasting “the friendliest people in Texas,” the little ’hood of River Oaks sometimes seems a preserved remnant of another time. Businesses come and go on the main boulevard without altering the town’s essential character. The community’s population, as it has been for decades, is still made up mostly of retirees, military personnel, and blue-collar workers. Only the changing fortunes of the nearby air base seem to truly affect the town.

So when River Oaks’ most popular Mexican restaurant closed for a few days and reopened two doors down, it was an event of note. Before dawn on July 1, a group of regulars gathered outside, impatient to get inside and check out the new digs.

Rivas, now 11 years old, won over the populace while surviving the rough waters of the town’s restaurant industry. Even fast-food staples Dairy Queen and Taco Bell died hard after nearby Carswell Air Force Base shut down in 1993. Rivas, on the other hand, was still there to welcome the folks who reopened Carswell a few years later as a joint reserve base. With a pleasant staff and good cheap eats, Rivas has become for many not just a meal but a tradition — you’re always liable to see a neighbor, or the mayor, whenever you walk in.

Rivas, in fact, has done more than survive. Over the years they reeled in enough customers to allow owner Francisca Rivas (whose son Juan manages the restaurant) to buy the otherwise vacant strip mall in which the diner operated. Last month, the eatery moved out of its plain-Jane quarters, with picnic tables and peeling white walls, and into splashier digs in the same strip. The regulars who waited that first day found a playfully sly paint scheme and sparse Mexican crafts on the walls. With the new décor, Rivas has become a destination for people beyond the town’s perimeter. The family also plans on opening a full-service catering facility next door.

Rivas’ popularity is evident at all three mealtimes. But before noon is when you’ll find them at their best. Eggs play starring roles in the eatery’s morning meals. A popular (and personal) favorite is the chilaquiles — a hearty portion of corn tortillas, cheddar cheese, jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, and eggs, all scrambled together and served with smoky refried beans. It’s fresh and fabulous diner fare: the eggs a fluffy eye-opener, the jalapeños a zesty kick, and the rest working together to provide the perfect seasoning. It’s best rolled up in handmade flour tortillas, and is a true-blue steal at only $4.25. On Tuesday, the dish is a breakfast special and, served for a measly $2.75, could easily constitute the day’s meal.

If you’re looking for something a little lighter, nopalitos are a good bet. With eggs, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños, this treat is built around the sweet juiciness of cactus pads. Another success is huevos rancheros, thanks to a spicy salsa that coats the eggs. Side servings of beans and thickly cut fried potatoes fill out the plate. (It’s served as a breakfast special on Wednesdays.)

The lunch and dinner entrées — an adequate array of burritos, enchiladas, and taco platters — are on average passable. Except for the chimichanga. Selling for a relatively steep $7.25, it’s a soggy mess, drowned in too much salsa and stuffed with flavorless chunks of potatoes and coarse cuts of beef — rather reminiscent of a microwaved can of Campbell’s chunky soup wrapped in a tortilla. Fortunately, there are ice-cold Jarritos and bottled Cokes imported from Mexico to wash out the taste.

If your taste runs more to flapjacks than frijoles, don’t be embarrassed. Rivas also serves steaks, omelets, pancakes, and other traditional American fare. But if you take a chance here with the spicier fare that Rivas specializes in, you’re not likely to be disappointed.

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