For a small joint, there are plenty of cooks in this kitchen. Daniel Wright is the pitmaster, his wife Stefania Trimboli-Wright is the chef, her sous chef is Roque Luis Peña, and they even have a pastry chef – Drew Mann. They all have their specialty, but as a group they’ve pumped some energy back into the Rio Grande Grill. They took over from a previous owner back in January of this year and quickly made some changes, but a few things remain the same. The old wood-burning pits in the smoke house out back are still smoking, but these days they’re full of prime briskets.
If it weren’t for a number of positive reader emails, I might not have found reason to stop. I stopped here with a McAllen resident who prides himself in keeping up with the local food scene, but this place had flown below his radar as well. After tasting very little in the way of solid brisket in South Texas, the beef at Rio Grande Grill was a revelation. Dense slices from the flat had good smoke from the mesquite and a well rendered rim of untrimmed fat. At 2:30 in the afternoon it was a bit dry, but it was still some of the best I’ve tried in the area. A chicken thigh was still miraculously moist. The skin was chewy, but it had some great smokiness. I asked owner Daniel Wright how they kept it so moist. “We do several batches throughout the day.” That extra effort is worth it. The only meat that was lacking a bit was the pulled pork. It was plenty moist and smoky, but it really needed some seasoning. That wasn’t anything a spoonful of homemade chimichurri and a warm four tortilla couldn’t fix. You have your choice of Texas toast of those tortillas, or you can get both if you ask nicely.
Once we’d had our fill I asked for a few slices of fatty brisket. It was truly stunning. The meat was buttery soft with a rich smokiness deep into each slice. This was brisket worth coming back for, but be sure to ask for it right off the bat. Ribs would have to wait since they’re only available as a special. You’re also likely to find daily specials like smoked shrimp or fried chicken too.
Choosing the side items was tougher than a simple choice between potato salad or slaw. There’s also queso, rice & beans, tortilla soup and tacos. The smoked fish taco and tortilla soup were our choices. The soup was loaded with chicken, pico and fresh avocado. A fish taco with a citrus dressing was more filling than any side needs to be. It was a welcome change from the normal side offerings, but was also the only item we tried that hadn’t taken well to the powerful mesquite smoke. It was hard to taste the fish over the smoke.
When Wright sat down with us in the middle of the empty dining room he was visibly excited to talk about their food philosophy. High quality ingredients were a priority which is why he uses Prime grade Angus from Creekstone for the briskets. When he told us it was all grass-fed I was shocked. I’d never had grass-fed brisket that well marbled. My shock wore off when I saw it was Creekstone’s line of Premium Black Angus which is very much corn-fed. Their intentions are good, but they need to be more careful with their sourcing if they really intend to use grass-fed beef.
Out back is a screened in smoke house. The pits look like antiques, and are about as inefficient as they come. One wonders how good their brisket would be if the smoker wasn’t as drafty as a barn door. The smoke poured out from every seam and the metal was so thin it sounded like I was tapping on a tin roof. Thankfully, they’re getting the best out of the equipment they inherited, and that’s good enough for now.
I pondered just what we had discovered here while we ate a slice of Drew’s fantastic apple pie. Finally, someone in The Valley is doing brisket good enough to travel for. Daniel and his team are young and full of energy to keep improving, so that bodes well for their future. Now, if they can just get spare ribs on the daily menu.
Note: The restaurant closed for the holiday on Saturday and will reopen on 12/26.