The old western cow’s skull on the far wall let’s you know off the bat that they’re serious about southwestern grub at Anchos. As you walk into the open area of the restaurant, you’re greeted by a wood-carved statue of one vaquero or another (the hostess didn’t know which) at the entrance, holding up a board with the daily specials. Neat rows of red chili peppers dangle from the tortilla press area like garlands. A full bar begs for our nocturnal attentions, but this is the middle of the day and we refuse to acknowledge its come-hither pull. The air is punctuated with the wafting smells of mesquite-grilled meats from the kitchen. Right: ¡Déme un poco de alimento!
I have come with a friend who has been frequenting the authentic bar and grill since it opened 18 years ago. He has made well over 100 trips to the place, and he always orders the same thing: A rack of ribs for two (he likes to bring company), and carne fajitas. He claims that these fajitas aren’t the best in the Inland Empire, but the best anywhere that he’s tried through his extensive global travels. (Note: his wanderlust has taken him as far as Salt Lake City, so this is no light claim). His bias is not my bias. In fact, I think he’s a bit sensationalist.
But this time he’s dead on. Without opening the menu, he orders those favorite segundo platos and within a few minutes, the waitress shows up with the standard chips and salsa, but also a hot batch of fresh flour tortillas. We run some cubes of butter over each one, and it melts on contact, and we eat them while they’re still steaming. There is nothing like a fresh, chewy tortillas hot off the press. And that’s one thing that Anchos has, a tortilla press, with the waitresses themselves dropping balls of dough into a spout, and after a minute within its systemworks, getting flattened and cooked, it comes out a perfect tortilla. Meanwhile, the salsa is fairly hot, but not overly.
“You know how beans and rice at other places are just filler,” my friend asks in-between bites. “Not here, even the beans are flavorful and the rice has chucks of chicken in it, you’ll see.”
And I see. The rice and beans come sidecar to the main courses, so I don’t see it automatically. Instead I see a sizzling hotplate of thick beef strips, and a long slab of ribs. There’s that smug look on my friend’s face (let’s call him Jim, for no apparent reason) that a man who’s in on a secret wears. “That meat will fall off the bone,” he says, already greasing his fingers on a riblet like a savage.
And it does. Jim’s right. A nibble is all it takes for the entirety of the meat to come sliding off the bone, deliciously basted with a southwestern rub, and with a slow-cooked tenderness that’s awe-inspiring. But before I can sing a word of praise, Jim is slathering one of those fresh tortillas (our waitress checks periodically on our stash, to make sure we’ve plenty) with guacamole, and he’s stabbing at the fajita skirt steak with his fork. He’s a savage. But I can’t help but emulate him, as he’s a savage with good taste. We pile three and four strips into a tortilla, and shove them in our mouths. Slowly at first then as savages might. I want to hate Jim for not telling me about Anchos before. “I’ve told you about it a million times.” Another thing about Jim, he lies as a convenience.
But damn if he ain’t right about the fajitas. They are as good (if not better) than any place in the world (as far as Salt Lake). The mesquite-wood grilled carne strips are plump and juicy, and bursting with flavor. There’s barely a word between us for fifteen minutes, until the lunch is near over. Anchos does not skimp on portions, so we are coming apart at the seams at the end. We refuse dessert (key lime pie and flan were rolled out as temptations), because, well, the line had to be drawn somewhere. And even still we continue to eat the tortillas and chips and guacamole, just because it’s still in front of us, all the way until (and sadly past) the waitress bringing our check, like perfect gluttons—yes, but mostly because we can’t get enough.
Sure enough, Jim plucks his fork into a chunk of chicken right there in the rice, and eats it. “Told you so.”
Another thing about Jim, he likes being right.
Anchos Southwest Bar & Grill, 10773 Hole Avenue, Riverside, (951) 352-0240, www.anchos.net. Dinner for two with drinks, approximately $50. AE, D, DC, MC, V