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Rico’s Filling Station spices up local food scene

Chris McGrady | Monday, March 17, 2008

Move over Chipotle – there’s a new sheriff in town. Rico’s Filling Station – where they don’t actually pump gas – is the new head-honcho ’round these parts. The restaurant’s weapon of choice? Flavor.

Rico’s Filling Station, a self-described MesoAmerican Grill, employs so many different tastes, and uses them so well, that other area restaurants can hardly compare. I was spoiled growing up in Colorado, where tiny taquerias serve up food full of flavor and spice. At these little restaurants, they understand there is a difference between creating spice with flavor, and just plain heat. While some of Rico’s dishes may not be “conventional fare,” they understand how to use this principal and that is what makes it head and shoulders above many other places. Not to mention, there isn’t a single item on the menu over six dollars. Not one – this is music to a college student’s ears.

What you first notice about Rico’s are the colorful surroundings. The walls are painted brightly and feature paintings by local artist Brian Milcinovic. The restaurant is impeccably clean, and there is plenty of comfortable seating. But enough about the setting. Let’s talk about what is really special about Rico’s – the food.

I started out with a little something to prime my appetite, trying three different kinds of soup – a black-bean, an avocado steak, and a gumbo. All three of these soups were very good. The avocado steak (a special that day) had a smoky and slightly spicy flavor and big, hearty chunks of steak. The gumbo was equally good. The black-bean, however, was outstanding. I am no big fan of legumes, but this soup was delicious, with a great Mexican-inspired flavor and plenty of hearty beans. All three soups were served with oyster crackers, but these had even been coated with a special blend of seasonings, hinting at the detail Rico’s employs in so much of its food. So far, so very, very good. Next, owner Jim Herter (who opened the restaurant on Nov. 30 of last year) brought out a sample of two of the restaurant’s signature dishes – the Cubano sandwich and the Andouille sausage sandwich. The Cubano sandwich accounts for 25 percent of Rico’s total sales, and for good reason. It features shredded pork and ham, Rico’s signature two-cheese queso sauce, crisp dill pickles, and a homemade mustard sauce, all on pressed bread. Here’s the thing – I hate pickles on my sandwich and I hate mustard. But I loved this sandwich. All of the flavors work perfectly together (surprise, surprise) and it makes for quite the tasty treat. The Andouille sandwich is slightly spicy, and is served with a Cajun mustard (amazingly, I liked it again) and shredded cheese. This may have been my favorite thing on the menu.

Next, I sampled one of the carnitas (shredded pork) burritos. The pork was tender and juicy and just the right amount of seasoning. Perhaps the best thing about the burrito was the way it was made up. It features just the right amount of beans, rice, lettuce and cheese. Unlike at Chipotle, where sometimes you bite into your burrito only to get a mouthful of rice, this burrito had the flavors completely in proportion, which worked remarkably well. “If you want me to, I can give you a ton of rice and beans and make the burrito as big as other places, and I will,” Herter said, “but I think it is better this way. The flavors all work together, and it’s better.”

I would have to agree.

Next were the jambalaya and the Jamaican jerk chicken, both of which were very well done. I asked for them spicy, but Herter made sure to tell us we could control just how much spice I wanted. They were each served with a generous slice of grilled bread. Once again, Rico’s impressed with their use of seasoning and both of these dishes were excellent.

Last, I was able to sample the churros – straw-like pastries, crispy on the outside and gooey delicious in the middle. They have plain, strawberry, and caramel and are served with a generous dollop of whipped cream. I was partial to the strawberry, but I have to admit they were all delicious.

Perhaps the last thing that sets the restaurant above the others is the owner. Herter knows most of his customers by first name, and greets them with a smile when they come in. Working alongside his wife, he’ll come by and ask you how your food is, and fix anything that’s not right (which isn’t likely). When I went back the next day with my friends (yes, I went back…and then once more the next day), he came by our table and brought us all a complimentary round of churros. That’s just the type of guy he is.

All in all, Rico’s Filling Station is an amazing restaurant, and was criminally empty while I was there. It is located close to campus (just across the parking lot from Between the Buns on South Bend Ave.) and serves up some of the tastiest food I have had in my four years here. They serve up beer and wine, and even have drink specials. So if you are looking for great, inexpensive food, close to campus, where ND students are more than welcome – Rico’s Filling Station is just the place.

The views and opinions expressed in Scene & Heard are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Observer.

Contact Chris McGrady at cmcgrad1@nd.edu