Tapa Rio

Pan con tomate and seafood paella are served at Tapa Rio, on Sophia Street in downtown Fredericksburg.

It was a warm winter’s night when we visited Tapa Rio on Sophia Street earlier this month. The Fredericksburg restaurant boasts a sprawling patio with wide water views, but it was just a little too chilly to dine outside. We were bummed but hungry, so we turned our attention to the menu.

“Top of the river” in Spanish, “tapa rio” also refers to Italian and Latin tapas-style fare meant to be savored and shared. Selections, offered by the eatery’s owners who hail from El Salvador, progress in heft, from “bites” to pizzas and other hearty-sized entrées. Names of dishes are written in Spanish, and though I took classes in high school and college, and my teenage son is taking one now, we needed more translation than we’re proud to admit. Our server was muy paciente and catered to our curiosity.

From a trio of “pintxos” or “bites,” each for $3, we chose the Montadito de Jamon. Toothpicks topped with twin olives pinned swirls of velvety prosciutto to toasty crostini. The olives and ham were a salty but tasty mix, and I washed them down with a happy-hour margarita for only $5.

Having sampled Tapa Rio’s tiniest tastes, we moved up in magnitude, choosing a single selection from each of two lists—cold and hot “Small Plates.”

I had eyed the Insalata Cavolo ($8) while perusing the menu online, and it came to our table looking just like the picture. A mini-mountain of black kale and peppery arugula was powdered with shavings of sweet manchego cheese, and we scooped it all up with extra crostini. My son ordered the Gambas a la Plancha ($11)—six good-sized shrimp hard-seared and artfully drizzled in an Argentinian parsley–oregano pesto called chimichurri. Bueno!

Tapa Rio’s main courses consist of pizza, paella, and entrees of beef, chicken and pork. My Paella de Verduras ($10)—rice mixed with ribbons of sweet red pepper and onion, olives and quartered artichoke hearts—came with wedges of lemon to squeeze on top. It was par for the course that my son wanted pizza, but I was surprised he chose the Funghi ($14), though he is an amusing fellow.

Kidding aside, we enjoyed the pie, which was loaded, but not overloaded, with mushrooms. Arugula deepened the earthy taste of the dish, topped with a Parmesan-like Grana Padano cheese. The hand-stretched dough, to be honest, brought to mind the crescents I pop out of tubes for quick family breakfasts.

We were too full for dessert ($6), so our server packaged a Chocolate Pot—dark chocolate custard, toasted hazelnuts and smoked honey—for us to take home. It was to die for, like eating a Ferrero Rocher with a spoon. The texture and taste was a mix of mousse, fudge and pudding, so we dubbed it a “mudging,” but the receipt called it a flan.

Tapa Rio has a big bar to the left of the entrance, and an ample L-shaped dining area with large windows and a fireplace. A huge church pew graces the back and bunches of baskets hang on the wall. The service was excelente.

Flickers from the patio’s fire pits caught my eye as we climbed in the car, and I thought of much warmer weather. I’ll be back for more tapas to share with my son, and for those water views.

Lisa Chinn works in PR at the University of Mary Washington. Her favorite food group is all of them.

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