In my constant search for Mexican food from regional Mexico (Oaxaca, Puebla, Chiapas, Mexico City, Tabasco, Guerrero), more often than not, the search turns up empty in the Inland Empire.
So it was with high hopes when I ran across Tio’s Grille and Cantina in Fontana, a departure from the standard Mexican fare found at Tio’s other locations.
Such dishes as costillas de puerco (small pieces of boneless pork ribs with green or black chile sauce); salmon topped with a green corn salsa; chicken chipotle atop alfredo pasta; baby clams in white wine, cream, fresh herbs over mashed potatoes; and chicken in an ancho mole sauce were dancing in my head.
I headed over to the restaurant, only to find out all of those intriguing sounding dishes had been casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. What remained were essentially all-too-familiar items offered by the chain of other Tio’s restaurants, much to my chagrin.
Now of course, other restaurants (that shall remain nameless) slop refried beans and rice on plates with tasteless overcooked meats and virtually flavorless sauces. Such is not the case at Tio’s, much to my relief.
A prime example would be their ceviche tostada made with impeccably fresh cod “cooked” in a piquant lime dressing served under a top hat of a fried flour tortilla. The ceviche was garnished with chopped cilantro and diced tomatoes along with half a sliced avocado. Both the flavors and the visuals were quite striking.
One of the less successful items was the tamale con hoja, stuffed with chicken and served in a brown sauce with a pleasant kick. Both the masa and the chicken were dry from either being heated too long, or cooked at too high a temperature.
The sope (corn cake) was one of the largest I’ve encountered, with a slight crunchiness on the outside and a soft, flavorful masa in the interior. Likewise the carne asada (grilled, charred beef) sprinkled on top was both tender and bursting with aromas with herbs and spices. The sope itself was buried in a mountain of shredded lettuce, cheese, diced tomatoes and beans. Their excellent chipotle salsa is an ideal accompaniment to drizzle over the top, imparting a smoky glow to the dish.
The Texas enchilada with al pastor (normally beef roasted on a vertical spit in many taco joints, but here probably grilled over an open flame) was huge. Aren’t all things in Texas? The pool of ranchero sauce, usually made from dried Anaheim and/or dried guajillo chiles, imparted a pleasing glow on the palate. The entire enchilada is topped with melted cotija cheese and pico de gallo. The dish was accompanied by their guacamole which was more like an avocado sauce, lacking both the chunkiness of just made guacamole, and fresh chopped green onions and cilantro.
The chile verde was superb. Tender cubes of pork are simmered in a garlicky roasted tomatillo sauce with a bit of green chiles and onions. I made sure to take some home to blend into my eggs at breakfast the next day.
Probably the highlight of the meal was the machaca burrito, large enough to feed two moderately hungry adults. Machaca is a blend of shredded beef, scrambled eggs, onions and bell peppers, similar to the Cuban dish Ropa Vieja. Oozing with multiple flavors and a hint of heat upon swallowing, this highly recommended item goes particularly well with their piquant salsa fresca. Spoon it atop the open side of the burrito and revel in the long-lasting flavor profile.
----- TIO’S GRILLE AND CANTINA
Where: 16953 Sierra Lakes Parkway, Suite 114, Fontana.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Food options: Menudo available on weekends. Brunch items available until noon. Beer available for purchase. Cantina no longer open.
Price range: Dinner entree prices $10 to $15, lunch items $5 to $10. Most major credit cards accepted.
For more information: Visit tiosmexicanfood.com or call (909) 355-7770.