We had the VIP tickets. We were dressed to the nines. I even had the requisite big hat. But where were the polo ponies?
We stared in dismay at the empty field and giant tent, then Sean quickly googled Aiken Polo. Friday night’s rain and the morning’s still-soggy ground had pushed the third leg of the Aiken Triple Crown to Sunday, so there we were, as they say, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
We drove in silence for a moment, then I announced, “Let’s go have lunch!”
Downtown Aiken was just a few blocks away, and as we strolled the narrow sidewalks, Sean and I and our friend Zach were definitely the best-dressed people in town. But we were looking for somewhere not so ritzy – just a good lunch of comfort food.
Café Rio Blanco seemed to fit the bill. The price was right – about $9 for a daily special lunch plate with our choice of entrée, yellow or white rice, black beans, and yucca or plantains. We didn’t even bother looking at a full menu but ordered right up. I chose the roast pork, while Sean and Zach had the vaca frita – stir-fried Cuban beef.
Opened in 2007 by the Pinero family, the café is right in the heart of downtown Aiken on Laurens Street. While the exterior is simple – just a black awning with the café’s name in white lettering, and a few metal tables and chairs for al fresco dining, the interior pops with color. The walls are painted with murals depicting landscapes and house exteriors – it’s fun and a little kitschy. I was charmed when I visited the restroom and saw a tiny painted mouse door along one wall.
Our full plates came quickly – some of the items already prepared in chafing dishes that the servers dished from – heavy with yellow rice and a saucy ladleful of black beans, a mound of meat and dark, caramelized plantains. The scents of the kitchen had promised good things. And it was a good plate of Cuban comfort – my juicy pork in its pool of sauce was garlicky and meaty and went well with the rice and beans. The plantains were amazing – sweet and soft with chewy caramel edges.
Sean liked his, too. The flavor, he said, was delicious. I took a taste and found the vaca frita was a little citrusy, a lot garlicky, but unfortunately, also rather dry. That was the only disappointment in a good dish. Sean and Zach both sampled my pork and liked it better, mainly because of its sauciness.
While we were emptying our plates, we also noticed a sign for paella night every Saturday, with seatings at 6:30 and 7:45 p.m. The photo looked amazing – a round pan heaped high with fat shrimp and mussels on top of rice. We asked our server, and she explained that it’s best to make reservations by Thursday at the latest.
Since rice, seafood and chicken are among my favorite ingredients, and paella usually has all three, it’s no wonder we were back again at Café Rio Blanco just a couple weeks later – this time with friends Tricia and PJ.
We were one of three tables for the 6:30 seating. The meal includes an appetizer of plantains, bread and the main course. The plantains and bread took the edge off as we watched other tables get their meals ordered off the menu – tempting plates filled with dark meats and rice –and smelled, once again, the great scent of roasting meat emanating from the kitchen.
Our paella was soon set on our table with a flourish. The photo did it proud. It was a round paella pan, filled with yellow rice. Nestled in this soft bed were pink shrimp; the black, flower-like shells of the open mussels; bright green peas; white chunks of chicken; and the deep red of lobster tails.
Once the guys said, “Ladies first,” Tricia and I didn’t argue, but dug right in.
There were a lot of flavors – a strong fresh taste of seawater from either the mussels or lobster, a hint of saffron and a mild sweetness from the chicken and fish. The rice was moist and filling, and along with the other ingredients, I discovered scallops and flakes of fish in my serving.
Once again, however, the one disappointment was dryness. While Sean and Tricia’s half-lobster tails were good, mine and PJ’s were dry and tough. Compared to the excellent mussels and shrimp, the scallops also were a little lacking.
We decided to order dessert and were sold when our server said guava cheese flan.
It came in a dark, café au lait wedge, topped by a spoonful of whipped cream garnished by caramelized bits of sugar. It was the perfect ending to the night – sweet, but not too sweet, with a rich caramel flavor throughout, with the crunchy, chewy candied sugar adding just the right amount of flavor and texture.
Overall, despite the unevenness in the ingredients, we enjoyed the experience of dining at Café Rio Blanco for both a quick lunch and a fun couples’ night. We had great servers and both meals were hearty and filling, worth visiting for the dessert alone. And I’m tempted enough by the promise in the aromas of that kitchen to come back and give Café Rio Blanco another try.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Café Rio Blanco, 148 Laurens St., Aiken
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (803) 643-7075 or find them on Facebook