Love him or hate him, Guy Fieri is doing something right. In 2012 he made Forbes’ oft-disputed list of the world’s richest chefs. He’s the most recognizable face on the Food Network. His five books include two New York Times best-sellers. And he’s accomplished all of this without any critically acclaimed restaurants to his name. In fact, the most prominent thing ever written about one of his eateries was Times food critic Pete Wells’ hilarious takedown of the spiky-haired chef’s Times Square spot in 2012.
All of this is possible because Fieri is less a chef than a brand: an instantly recognizable human logo with a unique personality and seemingly inextinguishable energy. The UNLV graduate’s bombastic appeal makes him a natural to feed Las Vegas’ partying tourists. And his second local restaurant, El Burro Borracho in the Rio, will undoubtedly play well with that crowd—particularly those who are already Fieri fans.
As a personality-driven (as opposed to chef-driven) restaurant, it’s appropriate that Fieri’s brand is front and center at his new place, the name of which literally translates to “the drunk ass.” Cookbooks, signature sauces and other assorted merch are for sale behind the hostess stand. And the centerpiece of décor is a tattoo-style representation of Fieri’s life, which my waitress informed me was painted by his personal tattoo artist, Craig Frasier. (The Madonna figure in the center represents his sister, Morgan, who died of cancer in 2011.)
The server who waited on me during two visits was friendly, and free soft drink refills arrived well before my glass was empty. She was a bit awkward, however, when she tried to employ such Guy-isms as “off the hook” to describe the various plates of food. (Guy, I’m begging you, tone down the bro-shtick at your restaurants. It’s forced and awkward.)
The bar for Mexican cuisine in Las Vegas casinos—or the city as a whole—is admittedly pretty low, with the notable exception of Border Grill. While Burro Borracho doesn’t hold a candle to Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s twin spaces in Mandalay Bay and the Forum Shops at Caesars, it’s a step above most of the others, offering decent Americanized Mexican for the masses.
My first impression of the restaurant, however, played to a pet peeve of mine: charging for things that are traditionally free. Fieri offers four signature salsas with chili-lime dusted tortilla strips for $4, with a $1 refill charge. Salsa cheapskates like me will want to ask for the unlisted, complimentary house version. Should you decide to pay for something in which to dip your tortillas, spring for the fundido, a deliciously complex blend of three cheeses, chorizo, pico de gallo and black beans.
The restaurant offers more than six types of tacos, some simple, others more innovative. I enjoyed the fried drunken fish topped with spicy slaw, pickled red onion and cilantro, even though the protein was a touch on the fishy side. The picadillo version—made with sweet braised beef, green olives, raisins, brown sugar, cabbage, cheddar, tequila-lime crema and pico de gallo—is a peculiar mixture that I enjoyed, but only in a single dose as part of a platter. A full order would have been too much.
Both of the enchiladas I’ve tried have been good, with caveats. The filling in the three-cheese version was tasty, as was the red, beer-laced Borracho sauce. But the cheese had been allowed to cool and coagulate by the time it arrived at my table. The chicken mole variety was also very good, although the chef was being a bit generous in describing the simple green enchilada sauce as a mole.
I tried twice to order carnitas as my entrée on a platter. The first time, the kitchen instead sent me a horribly overseasoned pile of carne asada. When I did finally get the pork shoulder, it was wonderful, with a crispy exterior, flaky texture and light seasoning that accented the taste of some truly quality pig.
An order of shrimp and chicken fajitas was also pretty good, although I would have appreciated some shredded cheese with the fixings. What surprised me, however, was that it didn’t arrive sizzling—a minor issue in many places, but surprising in a spot that seems intent on always sizzling.
The only truly bad dish I had here has been the chicken posole. The “broth,” poured over the condiments tableside, had the consistency of stew. It was also light on hominy and oppressively heavy on cumin. And the chicken, which I prefer shredded, came in massive chunks.
El Burro Borracho is definitely Mexican food for a party crowd that has never been to Mexico (or if they have, never left their hotel). But by those standards it’s solid, and it represents Fieri’s personality well enough to satisfy his fans.
Al’s Menu Picks
- Mexican fundido ($12)
- carnitas ($28 as part of a Borracho Platter)
- and queso casero enchiladas ($17)
El Burro Borracho
The Rio, 866-746-7671, Caesars.com/Rio-Las-Vegas. Open daily for dinner 4-10 p.m.Dinner for two, $40-$80.