Thank the fish tacos.
During the pandemic, this signature dish at Buenos Grill (along with other menu mainstays like salads, burritos and wraps) were nicely suited to the takeout orders allowed under COVIID-19 dining restrictions.
Buenos Grill, in the Mayberry Landing center in West Reno, also had plenty of parking, so folks who wanted to pick up their takeout curbside could easily be accommodated. With dining rooms closed, online ordering became essential, so the restaurant added that capability.
And when Reno officials approved temporary alcohol sales to go by restaurants in April 2020, homemade sangria and jalapeño margaritas and Buenos breezes made with three different rums went cocktailing out the door.
Before the city loosened regulations, “our alcohol was just sitting here,” said Mimi Butler, who owns the restaurant with her husband Greg. “Liquor sales to go really did help us. It was a whole new market that wasn’t there before.”
If the past 16 months required Buenos Grill to rely on its strengths (like fish tacos) as never before, it also offered an opportunity to refresh the business, something that doesn’t happen with every restaurant nearing its 25th anniversary.
The pandemic, it turned out, had an upside.
Back on the line
When the coronavirus shutdown began in March 2020, the Butlers were on spring break with their two children in Huntington Beach, Calif., where Greg Butler grew up. It would be nearly three months before extremely limited in-person dining resumed.
“Things were scary slow at first,” said Greg Butler. “It was just me cooking on Saturday nights. I cooked here when we opened (in 1999), but I had not done it regularly in 20 years. I had to get myself back in the mindset, the timing. The tortillas have to be ready when the fish is ready.”
Still, he said, with Buenos Grill’s long experience in quick-service dining, “we made the transition to takeout fairly easily. It had been 20 percent of our business, but then it went to 100 percent. Now, it’s down to about 50 percent.”
There was a wrinkle in the takeout tortilla, though: order flow. Buenos Grill had not offered an online menu before; to-go orders were phoned in. But with takeout essential to the restaurant’s survival, online ordering had to be launched right away.
“There would be six online orders, all people wanting their food at six o’clock, and a takeout line at the door and the phone ringing off the hook.” Mimi Butler said. “Now, online ordering has become permanent. Now, people have to pick a time slot. This year, we were ready for the rush on Cinco de Mayo.”
Besides takeout food, takeout cocktails helped sustain Buenos Grill during the pandemic.
“I think it was a nice and generous thing for the city to do for restaurants if they already had their liquor licenses,” Mimi Butler said. “I hope we can continue with liquor sales to go.”
(Reno News & Review asked a spokesperson for the City of Reno if the city were going to allow such sales to continue under loosened regulations or if the city code would be amended to make the sales permanent. By posting time, the spokesperson had not provided an answer. )
(Update: A spokesperson for the city later responded that sales would likely continue until the governor terminates the COVID-19 declaration of emergency, and that there are no plans to amend the city code.)
We’re not Taco Bell
When Greg Butler first scouted the future site of Buenos Grill, it was a dirt pad. Mimi Butler, a Reno native, used to ride her bike and board her horse nearby. From the beginning, fish tacos were going to anchor whatever restaurant emerged.
“I grew up camping in northern Baja,” Greg Butler said of the Mexican peninsula where fish tacos are a coastal specialty. “I grew up surfing there. We would buy fish and tortillas and salsas and make fish tacos. I always had this concept”: to combine good, consistent, Mexican-inspired food with quick service.
When Buenos Grill opened in 1999, diners weren’t as familiar with this idea — an independent, fast-casual restaurant offering quality dishes — as they are today.
“They felt we should be priced like Taco Bell,” Greg Butler said. “The counter-service aspect is much more understood and respected now.”
At the time, other folks told the couple, “I don’t know if enough people like fish. I don’t think people in Reno are going to keep you in business doing fish tacos,” Mimi Butler added.
Twenty-two years (plus two recessions and one pandemic) later, Buenos Grill is still open, and still fueled by fish tacos: charbroiled with mango salsa, fried with chile cream sauce, rubbed with spices.
Fish tacos have been joined on the menu by dishes like breakfast chilaquiles, shrimp burritos spiked with garlic butter, a Caesar wrap stuffed with blackened salmon, fish of the day, crunchy coconut tofu chunks with orange chile sauce and vegan sweet potato and black bean enchiladas.
Beans and rice are vegan, too. Lard is used only for an occasional carnitas special. “It’s our take on Mexican with lighter ingredients,” Greg Butler said.
With all dining restrictions lifted, folks have begun to fill the tables again at Buenos Grill. The dining room is still eclectically outfitted with hanging stars, fiesta flags, beer memorabilia, images by local photographers and a gently plashing fountain. Greg and Mimi Butler are back working the counter beneath the order board glowing tangerine.
Some customers haven’t returned to Buenos Grill because, in a sense, they never went away during the pandemic. Customers like Steve Markwell, who has stopped by weekly for years for his Buenos burrito fix (charbroiled fish, mango salsa)
“Sometimes, people have a difficult time cooking fish,” Markwell said. “It’s always cooked correctly. They’ve never made a mistake. It’s always a great atmosphere.”
The Buenos burrito, of course, is the burrito version of the Buenos fish taco.
Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink writer for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter.