There are exactly 1 million copycat recipes for the Cafe Rio pork out there. I've read through them all and tasted many of them, and found them all... lacking. Most of them involve a crock pot, but leave the meat sitting in a puddle of flavored water at the end. That's water that will either not come out with your meat, leaving the flavor in the pot, or will come out with your meat, ruining your salad or tacos or burrito or whatever by making it too soggy and drippy. Actual Cafe Rio pork is not sitting in a puddle of water, but has a drippy glaze, loose enough to flavor the other things it's touching, but thick enough to not run around where it's not wanted.
There are a few recipes that attempt to remedy this consistency issue by throwing away all the liquid that's produced in the cooking process and making a new sauce to add to the pork after it's been shredded. That's on the right track, but that liquid you're throwing away has all this great flavor you'd be losing. It's a waste to then make a sauce out of some of the same ingredients that went into the stuff you just threw away. On top of that, the cooking liquid has, like, pork stuff in it. Rendered collagen or something. I'm not actually sure what's coming out of the pork and into the liquid, but it's essentially turned the liquid into pork broth with all this umami and stuff in it, especially so if your pork roast had a bone in it when you started. That porky flavor is super important to the final product.
So, I add the additional step of turning the cooking liquid into my sauce, then reducing it (boiling it for a while until a lot of the water evaporates) until I get the more syrupy/glazey sort of consistency I'm looking for. That's the big revolutionary step that makes this recipe better than the others.
On top of that, I've played with the ingredients somewhat. Most recipes use Coke, which is great for southern cooking, but doesn't seem as good here. Coke braised things seem a little dry and acidic tasting to me, so I didn't think it was the right choice here. I used root beer instead because the flavor comes from, like, herbs or something. I also used Dr Pepper. I think someone told me once that Cafe Rio makes their pork with Dr Pepper. Or, maybe Dr Pepper reminds me of my Uncle Rex, and he spent lots of time in New Mexico, and Cafe Rio's food share something with the specific style of Mexican cooking from that area so it seemed appropriate. Regardless of my lack of care and thinking that went into the choice of these sodas, the flavor profile was still far preferable to any of the copycat recipes made from Coke.
I made this recipe for a dinner party tonight, and it appeared to be unanimously loved. The guests I talked to all agreed that it was definitely closer in consistency to the actual Cafe Rio pork than anything else we'd tried. And while we didn't have any actual Cafe Rio pork to compare against, we thought it was at least closer to the taste we remembered than the other things we've tried.
So, I'm not going to say this is an exact copycat recipe, since memory is a fickle thing. If put to a direct taste test, I might find that it's actually much further in taste. Even if that were true, this recipe still makes some really great tasting pork, so it's what I'm sticking with from here on out.
Cafe Rio Pork Barbacoa
2 lb pork shoulder roast (If the roast is bigger, scale the other ingredients appropriately)
1 cup Dr. Pepper®
1 cup root beer
1/4 tsp garlic salt
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp chili powder
4 oz can diced green chilies
1/2 cup brown sugar
Put the pork in the Crock Pot® with the sodas and the spices. Cook on low for 6-8 hours until the the pork is ready to shred easily.