Tonnie Pointer knows everyone loves a good street taco, so she's serving a half-dozen varieties at Rio Taco & Tequila, a new downtown eatery.
The street tacos, so called because they're small and can easily be held in your hand and munched on as you walk down the street, are a specialty at the just-opened spot where Pointer is executive chef.
"That's probably our biggest seller so far," said Pointer, adding they're offered with brisket, steak, vegetables, chicken tinga (shredded chicken), ground beef and al pastor (spit-grilled) pork.
"They're traditional with two tortillas, protein, cilantro and red onions," Pointer said. "Salsa verde comes on the side, and they're served with rice and beans."
Located at 333 Third St., where City Bar once operated (City Bar now sits atop Rio Tacos & Tequilas), the restaurant's menu is filled with Mexican-inspired dishes with a spicy Louisiana twist.
"We just wanted to bring something new to downtown," she said. "People love Mexican food, so we wanted to do something completely different and bring to people something new and offer another choice for their lunch."
In addition to the street tacos, enchiladas are another customer favorite. While a plate comes with either three chicken or beef enchiladas topped with sour cream sauce and sides of rice and beans, Pointer said that's only a suggestion.
"You can pick any meat you want to go inside of them, along with onions and bell peppers," she said. "They're definitely popular, and we've been getting a lot of orders for them."
Pointer also has created a few specialty dishes, like camarones, for the menu.
"It (camarones) has roasted garlic, and it has both red and yellow bell peppers," she said. "It's made with six jumbo shrimp. That's our specialty dish that no one else really has."
As time goes on, Pointer said she will add more specialty dishes while maintaining customer favorites.
For now, though, the focus is on perfecting lunch and brunch services.
"Once we get passed this pandemic and people can start returning to work again, I think we'll see a much bigger lunch crowd," she said. "We want to give them something that is of value. You get your meal and a drink for $10, and we try to make sure it comes out fast, because we know they only have that one hour to eat. We're also excited about taco Tuesdays, where you'll get $2 tacos or $3 steak or brisket tacos."
Sunday brunches will have a Mexican spin, she said.
Owners Chad Hughes and Eric Carnegie, who also own City Bar, originally planned to open Rio Tacos & Tequila in June, but those plans changed when the pandemic hit. Construction and remodeling were pushed back to the summer, setting the opening for January.
"We've been working on the restaurant about a year," Pointer said. "COVID pushed us back quite a bit. It was a long process, and though it wasn't a big remodel to the building, it was definitely a big transformation."
The restaurant will be able to seat 96 customers when pandemic restrictions, which are now at 50% occupancy, are lifted.
"You can eat inside or outside; it's your choice," Pointer said. "The atmosphere in our outside dining area in the front is really nice. At night, there's a really nice ambience out there. People really enjoy the patio."
In the meantime, Pointer is planning some new dishes for February and possibly some Mardi Gras specials.
"I think we'll still get a good crowd downtown," she said. "I think we'll do some taco specials and get them out, because this pandemic is depressing. Mardi Gras is something people look forward to every year. We'll still require masks and social distancing, and we'll follow all the rules."
The restaurant also has a full bar. For now, only churro bites topped with whipped cream, chocolate and caramel are served for dessert.
"We'll be adding to the desserts as time goes on," Pointer said. "And we will definitely have rotating specials every week. I want to keep it fresh. I'm just holding off on that a little bit because I want people to try the base menu, and probably start rolling lunch specials on Valentine's Day."
That, she said, will give customers a reason to return.
"When people go to a place and they like it, they will keep coming back, but eventually they tire," she said. "They want something fresh. I think once we push past the pandemic, it's going to be a bright future."