Tucked away in a ground floor plaza at Third Avenue is a sign that says TEXAS in bright neon letters. At this entrance, we were led into the Texan portion of El Rio Grande's two-sided restaurant. The well-lit space pays homage to this grand state with a large Texan flag, a stuffed buffalo with wings suspended over the bar and giant cowboy boots up on a shelf. Making our way through the kitchen and stopping to chat with the cooks, we found our way to the Mexican side. Crossing the border has never been so easy. We chose to eat in this part of the restaurant, although the menu remains the same either way. We started our lunch with their tableside guacamole. As our server began mixing the ingredients, he told us how the restaurant has been at this location for thirty years. He went on to say that his mom had been working in the kitchen for twenty of them, and how he has become the tableside guacamole expert. On his recommendation, we ordered two lunch specials: the Burrito de Puerco, covered in a savory-sweet mole sauce, and the Tacos de Tilapia. El Rio Grande's wall of windows looks out onto the public plaza. In the warmer weather, the restaurant's expansive outdoor seating is the perfect setting to sip on one of their many margaritas (they offer 15-20 varieties) and share an order of guacamole.
“If you’re going to the theater, you go to Tony’s, ” said Dreni Kyqykaliu, the restaurant’s general manager. Those en route to a Broadway show are a good portion of their clientele, nearby office workers make up the lunch rush, and tourists pop in during breaks between sightseeing. “The blessing of being in Times Square is having all these groups come in. ”Anyone who has visited Tony’s will be familiar with their signature, massive portions of food that are meant to be shared family-style. This adherence to simple but hearty cooking is a trademark of the people that started Tony’s: the Wetansons. (They founded the now-dissolved 1950s burger chain, Wetson’s, which later merged with iconic hot dog vendor, Nathan’s Famous. ) Four generations of Wetansons have run this network of casual dining establishments that also includes Dallas BBQ. Unlike other large companies, however, Greg Wetanson, his father, Herb, and his son, Stuart, remain closely involved in the day-to-day operations and run things as a family business. Thanks to this amiable atmosphere, “Most of the management and the chefs have been here for twenty plus years, ” said Dreni, who joined Tony’s shortly after it opened in the 1990s.
When the City of New York acquired this lot to house Engine 65 in 1895, clubs and residents around the area feared it would disturb the peace. Having calls since their very first night on the job, and as the first responder to Times Square, it became clear that the service was needed and soon became wildly appreciated. One of the firemen, Chris, told me this was something he had always wanted to do. “I love the camaraderie between the guys, ” he said, a theme that seems to reoccur throughout all Manhattan fire stations.