Food with a View at Cafe Rio in Aptos

New chef and menu, cheap eats on the patio make a tourist stop neighborhood friendly.

Chef Jacob Wildman and some braised ribs in the background
Chef Jacob Wildman and some braised ribs in the background
Nothing like all this summer weather in winter to make you want to find a place to eat outdoors by the ocean.

But search around and you realize those places are in short supply. That's one of the strong points of Cafe Rio in Aptos, a fixture for decades that attracts tourists passing on their way to Pebble Beach and plenty of locals. Not only can you eat on a patio looking out on the beach, but it's one of the best places in the South County to catch a sunset from the dining room.

Which isn't to say that the scenery is its strongest suit. It's not. With an innovative local seafood menu this place would be great with no windows. New chef Jacob Wildman has kept the traditional favorites, such as sand dabs and swordfish, but added new items with a European bent and plenty of local, fresh produce.

The deviled eggs stuffed with ahi, tarragon and horseradish is an appetizer worth driving for, like a trip to Spain by car. Same with the charred octopus, tender, yet meaty, spiced just right with black olive oil, giardiniera (vegetables) and potato aioli. If you prefer broiled lobster to boiled, you will go crazy for this flame-cooked dish.
There was some mystery in the bowl of clams I ordered. In the past, there were just clams with butter sauce. Now, there was calamari and one of the new house specialties, homemade chorizo, added in. Voila. Perfect.

My main course was Seafood Bucatini, my go-to in a seafood restaurant, which offered clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp in a crushed tomato sauce. It was delightfully fresh and subtly seasoned, filling like a good paella. I would have preferred it spiced hotter, but this wasn't a trip to Mexico.

Owner Jeanne Harrison has succeeded in keeping this longtime restaurant fresh. Harrison had managed it for 20 years under other owners, but then it closed for two years. A patron who loved the place helped Harrison buy it and it's a bright light in Rio del Mar for the past two years. 

The new menu got some criticism on Yelp, but Harrison laughs it off. "Yelp is what dogs do," she says. 

It's hard to complain about change when the new menu kept the classics of the old one and just added some forward-thinking dishes. 

Most people who find this place for the first time do so because they are returning from a day on Rio del Mar beach and its patio is one of the best anywhere. The patio is dog-friendly and insulated from the wind. Appetizers are around $10; dinners around $20. But the locals wander down from 3-6 p.m. for half-priced happy hour drinks and appies.

There are also weekly $7 specials on the patio or at the bar including:

Sunday: Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes
Monday: Pulled Pork Sliders with Homemade Coleslaw
Tuesday: Shrimp and Bacon Mac n' Cheese
Wednesday: Two Tacos (Chicken, Steak or Fish) featuring Fernando's Famous Salsa
Thursday: Teriyaki Chicken Wings with Homemade Coleslaw

Chef Wildman's main goal is to make things fresh and local, saying that if you use the best ingredients, you don't have to do too much to them. Raised in Watsonville, the 38-year-old studied cooking in Hawaii, after getting a business degree at UCLA. Returning to the mainland, he worked at Spago in Beverly Hills and helped open restaurants in Miami and New York for Top Chef's Govind Armstrong. He also helped design Tar & Roses in Santa Monica.

He always wanted to return home and said Cafe Rio is a perfect fit. 

Let us know what you think of the new Rio below.

Kimber January 13, 2014 at 06:16 PM
I had Christmas Eve dinner there with my boyfriend. This is a different Cafe Rio then the one I visited a few years ago. Hadn't been back since then, as I was not impressed. The Sand Dabs I ordered killed it. They were fresh and moist and everything you want from that light, wonderful fish. The smashed peas with malt vinegar were superb. Great service as well. The new menu and flair is definitely one to return to. And the view.....sigh! A fabulous meal. Can't wait to go back!


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