Rediscovering Café Rio Taco Salad

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This recipe is one of the first recipes I ever posted here on the Recipe Shoebox, back when my sisters and my mom were the only ones who even knew this blog existed. Having just returned from a trip out west and enjoying a Café Rio salad again (but definitely preferring my homemade version), I thought I'd repost it for you all to discover (or rediscover). It's one of our very favorites!

With its rich history, thousands of places to visit, great schools, and good cultural opportunities, I'd have to say that living near DC definitely has its perks. There's only one more thing that would make it perfect....a nearby Cafe Rio [oh and maybe less traffic too]. This knock-off recipe for Café Rio's taco salad is one of our very favorite dinners to make. In fact, the last time I was out west and ordered the real deal salad from Café Rio, I found I'd actually grown to prefer this version over the real deal. I'd still take not having to cook it myself, so if you're thinking of starting your own Café Rio franchise in Northern Virginia, don't worry I'll be your first loyal customer.

When you make this, I recommend making the dressing and starting the chicken early in the day. Then about an hour before dinner, start the rice, add the spices to the chicken, chop the lettuce, and start cooking the tortillas. Right before serving heat up the black beans and start bringing your delicious feast to the table!

Click here for Printable Recipe.

Café Rio Dressing

1 buttermilk ranch dressing packet (make as per recipe)
2 tomatillos (tomato like vegetable with a husk around them--your produce manager will know where they are)
½ bunch of cilantro
1 clove garlic
Juice of 1 lime
1 jalapeño** (Use the seeds too if you like it spicy. You could substitute a few drops of green tobasco for the jalapeno.)

**If you don't like the feelings of your hands burning for hours (like my poor sister Kristina) PLEASE wear gloves while you work with the jalapeno (and if you go ahead and chop without protection....please don't rub your eyes or scratch yourself.) Read here if you want more details**

Use a food processor to blend all the ingredients well. Refrigerate.

Cafe Rio Chicken

(not pictured: chicken breasts)

1 small bottle (8-oz.) Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing
1 T chili powder
1 T cumin
3 cloves garlic—minced
2 lbs chicken breast

Cook all together in a crock pot for 4 hours, shred meat and cook 1 additional hour--this is what the instructions say. I cook my chicken in the crockpot with water and onion for 6-8 hours and then drain the water, shred the chicken with a fork, and add the dressing and spices about 1 hour before we're eating.

Café Rio Rice

6 cups water
6 chicken bouillon cubes
4 tsp. garlic –minced
½ bunch cilantro
1 can green chiles—or equivalent fresh
¾ tsp. salt
1 Tbs. butter
½ onion
3 cups rice (I like to use brown which takes longer to cook but is healthier)

I saute the dry rice and onion in the butter until it is just browned. Then blend cilantro, green chiles and the onion together in food processor (with 1 cup of the rice water for easier blending). Bring water to a boil and add all ingredients, simmer covered 30 minutes or 50 minutes if using brown rice.

The rest of the ingredients:
1-2 cans black beans, heated
Flour tortillas
Cheddar cheese, shredded (for sprinkling on tortillas)
Shredded lettuce

Brown both sides of the flour tortillas (we use whole wheat) on a lightly buttered griddle, sprinkling a little cheese to one of the sides after it is browned. It should be slightly crisp.

Serve with the crisp cheesy tortilla on the bottom, then layer the black beans, rice, lettuce, chicken, and dressing.



Erin September 22, 2009 at 4:14 PM  

i love southwestern and mexican dishes and this looks like something my family would absolutely adore.

thanks for another fabulous recipe!

Spryte September 22, 2009 at 5:38 PM  

YUM!! This looks soooooo good!!!!!!!!!

Debbie September 22, 2009 at 6:02 PM  

I was just wondering what to have for dinner I know!

Romney Family September 23, 2009 at 9:51 AM  

I love these recipes!! I have them and make them at home as well. YOurs looks fantastic!! I live out west here and I still prefer to make it at home than going to the restaurant!!

Kim September 23, 2009 at 11:44 AM  

This looks delicious. I could just tear into a bowl of it right now:)

Katy ~ September 23, 2009 at 2:08 PM  

This looks so wildly delicious!

teresa September 24, 2009 at 1:04 PM  

i had cafe rio for the first time over the summer and it really does live up to the hype. your homemade version however, looks better!

andre'a May 3, 2010 at 9:42 PM  

I've never had the Cafe Rio version of this but we love, love, LOVED this! It was an all-day affair to make it (I made the whole-wheat tortillas from scratch as well) but well worth it.

Thank you!

Lara May 6, 2010 at 7:09 PM  

James and Andre'a,
I'm so glad to know that you loved them too. It is time consuming, but oh so worth it for a special meal!

Christy January 11, 2011 at 7:09 PM  

That looks amazing! But I can see why you don't fix it that often...looks time consuming. I'll have to save this for a day when I'm feeling more ambitious than chicken tortilla soup. :)

Heather May 13, 2011 at 10:32 PM  

This is one of my favorite recipes. I could eat it meal after meal (and I have!). We use boneless, skinless chicken thighs and they are so tender. My kids love to take the ingredients and roll it up into a burrito, while I like mine as a salad without the tortilla. Super yummy!

cassie August 8, 2011 at 1:58 PM  

I have the recipe for the pork and the salad dressing from there. I am willing to post or give it to you to post. It is so yummy and super easy to make. I have a friend that works there so the recipe is do I share?

Lara August 8, 2011 at 11:43 PM  

Hi Cassie,
Wow! I'd love to have the actual recipe. You can email it to me at or if you decide to post it yourself, just send me the link! :) We just got our first Cafe Rio in the DC area and it made me realize how much I missed it.

Jennifer,  June 11, 2014 at 11:09 AM  

This is wonderful! My family loves it!

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About This Blog

My name is Lara and while I'm definitely not a gourmet cook, I do love preparing tasty, healthy meals for my family. Finding new recipes to try and sharing the ones we've already fallen in love with is a passion I've had since college and the reason why I've started this blog! With five kids, I'm usually in a hurry, so you'll find most of these recipes kid friendly and simple to make.

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