By Lisa Kelsey

Aside from the new sign, Tio’s Restaurant and Cantina has the same drab exterior the Route 22 location has had for ages, but once you set foot inside you’ll be greeted by the sight of walls the color of ripe papaya festooned with colorful dresses, sombreros and painted crockery – any glum feelings you may have will be banished. A row of glass barrel drink dispensers resting on a serape-covered platform just inside the dining room are filled with such enchantingly labeled liquids as Tamarindo and Agua Fresca de Sandia. No need to even look at the menu, all this and the cheerful sound of mariachi music leave little doubt what kind of food is served by this establishment.

The obvious pride the owners have in their Mexican roots doesn’t stop at the decor. The tortilla chips feature the national colors (red, green and white … or well, you know, close to it). Even the Sprite my son ordered came from Mexico (no high fructose corn syrup!). The menu is chock-full of authentic dishes like huaraches and sopes, in addition to the more familiar tostadas, enchiladas, quesadillas and the like. Most entrees come with a choice of chicken, steak, carnitas, shrimp or vegetables but there's also beef tongue for more savvy – or adventurous – diners. Less traditional items still have a decidedly south of the border twist. There’s a burger on the menu and you get a side of fries, but the sautéed onions and mushrooms are fortified with jalapeños and Oaxaca cheese.

Just as a first impression at a job interview is important, so too is the first thing brought to the table at a restaurant, in this case chips and salsa. The chips were pleasantly thin and crispy and perfectly salted. The salsa was bursting with fresh flavor and even it’s slightly uneven chunkiness I found to be an asset since it assured me it wasn’t from a jar. The tables are equipped with the de rigeur bottle of hot sauce. The house choice of Valentina, which hails from Guadalajara, has a great kick but it’s also one of the more flavorful I’ve tasted – a great choice.

My daughter ordered the Tostada Grande – a crunchy flour tortilla the size and shape of a small gardening hat, filled with refried beans, shredded iceberg lettuce, and chicken, topped with guacamole, pico de gallo, queso fresco, sour cream AND salsa – that’s a mouthful in more ways than one! That many toppings might seem a little “over the top” for some, but there were no complaints from my daughter as she cracked and dipped away at her bowl.

I opted for the sopes, three coaster-sized, hearty, homemade corn tortillas topped somewhat more simply with shredded lettuce, Oaxaca cheese, avocado and salsa. Like many items on the menu the several protein options are offered for the sopes. I was having a hard time choosing between chorizo, carnitas or al pastor. Al pastor (literally “shepherd style”) is a technique of grilling meat on a vertical skewer brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Tacos al pastor is classic fusion cuisine – a combination of a familiar middle eastern method of slow roasting but using pork instead of lamb and marinating the meat in chilies and pineapple instead of onions and coriander. (When Christ Church on Quaker Hill pastor Mark Allan and his family stopped by to say hello on the way out, I couldn't resist asking his lovely daughter Blair if her father had ordered the tacos “al pastor”). I ended up going for the carnitas (shredded pork), which I enjoyed very much, but I’ll definitely be back to sample the others.

There’s no beer on the menu (at least not yet) but there’s a wide selection of sodas and the house made drinks displayed in the dining room. I was intrigued by the milky rice drink, Horchata, which listed melon seeds as an ingredient. It was soothing, cooling and perhaps a bit too sweet for my tastes to drink with a meal, but delicious nonetheless.

Speaking of sweet, the dessert menu will tempt you if you have any room after the generous dinner portions you'll get at Tio’s. I tasted the cheesecake, which was fluffy, cakey and less dense than the usual. If you’re used to a creamier cheesecake you might find the texture a bit challenging, but it was rich and satisfying. I've also heard great things about the flan.

The wait staff and hostess were cheerful and attentive on a very busy Saturday night. All the tables in the spacious, casually-appointed dining room were filled with couples and families with kids of all ages. The whole place cheered for the young girl celebrating her birthday on a long table next to us – everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I think, like us, they were happy Tio’s Restaurant and Cantina has been added to the mix of our local dining scene.

Tio’s Restaurant and Cantina

is located at 3165 Route 22 in