It seemed like a really bad idea.
Opening a fast-casual burrito place in a location along Coldwater Road best known for once housing an indoor playground?
A place that is kind of away from the hustle and bustle?
And doing it now with the popular Chipotle and Qdoba chain burrito restaurants popping up all over the city?
But as soon as I heard who was taking a chance with Salsa Grille, my worries subsided.
Owners Jerry and Chris Rongos are the sons of George Rongos, who started George’s International Grocery at Broadway and Taylor Street.
The brothers now own the grocery, so to say they know a thing or two about Mexican food is an understatement.
They grew up with it, know where to get it and, more importantly, know how to prepare it.
So the burrito game was a slam dunk.
Salsa Grille is set up similar to its chain competitors. You order at a counter and slide down and tell the employees at the assembly line what you want on your burrito, taco, quesadilla, rice bowl, salad or nachos before paying and grabbing a seat.
The tastiest feature at Salsa Grille, however, isn’t even on the menu and it is free for anyone who purchases a meal – the salsa bar.
This self-serve area holds a plethora of goodies including: George’s hot and mild salsa, tomatillo salsa, tomatillo-chipotle salsa, pico de gallo, pickled whole jalapenos, roasted tomato-habanero salsa, avocado salsa, jalapeno salsa, chile de arbol salsa and the wickedly popular pineapple salsa.
All of them were fresh and flavorful with sweet pineapple being my favorite when kicked up by adding a little tomato-habanero to it.
The pico de gallo, Jerry Rongos said, is the same mix of onions, cilantro, tomatoes and jalapeno that is made fresh daily and sold by the pint at George’s.
I also loved the tomatillo salsa and the dark brown chile de arbol, which had an intense char/roasted flavor and an intense heat that snuck up on me.
Rongos said peppers are roasted over the grill every morning for the salsas and to season some other dishes.
Rongos said he respects his competitors and is even somewhat of a fan of theirs, but he and his brother are striving to do things better.
I think we have a different spin on it, he said. Our biggest goal was to supply ourselves.
At (George’s) we had all of these authentic spices and other ingredients to use, and I think our ingredients are much fresher. The grocery store is our main supplier, and we go to Chicago three times a week for ingredients.
One thing Salsa Grille has the upper hand on for sure is its carne asada steak.
George’s has long been my favorite place for carne asada tacos, and the steak at the Grille may be even better.
It is juicy, surprisingly tender for such a tough cut of beef and it was nicely charred outside while still being slightly pink inside.
Pairing that steak with some oregano- and roasted pepper-seasoned black beans, some corn and roasted poblano pepper-dotted rice, a little of the house-made cheese sauce, goat queso fresco, cilantro, fresh avocado, pico de gallo and a little of the hot salsa made my monstrous burrito fabulous and filling.
The flour tortilla was also lightly grilled, so it was nice and warm but still soft and pliable.
There were only two flaws with the set-up.
Hot and mild were the only varieties of salsa offered on the assembly line.
I would have loved to have had some of the other enticing varieties inside my burrito.
There was also an extra charge for having more than one kind of cheese, even though paying this didn’t really result in a larger portion of cheese being added.
As good as the burritos were, the nachos may have been better.
I would have a hard time naming a place that does nachos better than Salsa Grille.
The toppings – including the meat – were heaped on the warm chips and there was no skimping when it came to the cheese sauce.
The taco salad was also great with its crisp, light shell bowl.
Two house-made dressings are available – tomatillo-lime ranch and red chile Caesar.
I chose the ranch and it was creamy, bright and simply delicious.
I tried all of the meat varieties and, in addition to the carne asada, enjoyed the pot roast-like barbacoa and the verde chicken chimichurri best.
The chicken was tender and stringy with a nice punch of herbaceous flavor from the chimichurri.
I mixed a little chorizo in with my barbacoa and it added a nice smoky flavor to the beef.
The ground beef was nicely seasoned and the ancho chili chicken was OK, but it came off as bland compared to the verde chicken.
The carnitas pork also lacked Mexican flair but was still tender and juicy.
Salsa Grille’s soups were enjoyable.
The tortilla soup looked boring with just roasted chicken and tortilla pieces in a brownish-orange broth, but it was amazing.
The broth had a roasted chicken richness that blew me away. The only thing I added was a little salsa to spice it up.
The fideo soup was also simple with just small noodles and cilantro sprigs in a red broth. This broth was very oily, but it, too, had a nice flavor that kept me coming back for more.
I will definitely be going back for more of Salsa Grille.
It not only has fresher, better-tasting ingredients than its rivals, it was a beautiful facility and the service was stellar.
Chris Rongos was there both times I visited and spent time at every table checking on customers and asking each what could be done to make the restaurant better.
The space is clean and modern and it really looks like a corporate-owned place right down to its spiffy red tomato logo.
The brothers have also brought some of George’s into the space with shelves of salsas, chips and other ingredients for sale. So getting a pint of George’s pico or salsa, some queso dip and a bag of chips doesn’t require northsiders making a trip downtown anymore.
Restaurant: Salsa Grille
Address: 7755 Coldwater Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Carne asada ($6.55), ancho chicken ($6.25), chorizo ($6.25), pork carnitas ($6.55), barbacoa ($6.55), soup ($4.50)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).