April 26, 2011

Barrio Cafe Review

This weekend, Robert and I were thrilled to have a babysitter on a Saturday night, a rare ocurrence since he works on Sundays. Once I'd styled my hair (no ponytail!), put on makeup and found a shirt that didn't have toddler fingerprints on it, we made our escape. We drove away laughing at the game my sister had our girls enthralled in - a practice Easter egg hunt with pinecones. Then, it occurred to us that we had no idea where we wanted to eat. So, we Yelped and came up with the Barrio Cafe. What an incredible choice that turned out to be!

We arrived at Barrio and had to circle the block twice before we could find a parking spot - and we chose the street just to the north so that we could walk a bit. The restaurant is located in a strip of stores along 16th street just south of Thomas. When we arrived around 6:45 pm to put our names in for a table for two, the manager told us the wait would be around an hour. It was a beautiful evening so we parked ourselves on the patio and enjoyed the cool breeze. With us were a lot of other people who were clearly enthused about the coming dinner and unperturbed by the wait - or the view of the laundrymat across the street. After all, it is the "Barrio" Cafe.

In just over an hour, we found ourselves sitting at a table with a great view of guitarist and vocalist Gustavo Angeles and awaiting the creations of Barrio's James Beard nominated chef, Silvana Salcido Esparza. As we sat there with our stomachs growling at the delicious fragrances wafting from the kitchen, we checked out our surroundings. The restaurant is small in a cozy sort of way and decorated like a neighborhood place - with Virgin Mary candles on the tables and awards framed on the wall.

There were so many delicious looking options on the menu, we had a hard time deciding what we wanted to eat. Robert chose the Torta de Pollo Jaiba, chicken breast seasoned with spiced hollandaise style sauce and topped with crab, avocado and Oaxacan cheese. Since it was a torta, it was on a soft artisan roll and came with steak fries and chipotle ketchup. Doesn't it look good? His grin after the first bite confirmed that he was happy with his choice.

Um, we'd already devoured a lot of the steak fries before the pic!
I, on the other hand, wanted a real taco. So I went with Tacos de Cochinitapibil, slow roasted pork tacos after the Mayan tradition flavored with sour orange and served with salsa and queso fresco. As our waiter put it in front of me, I knew I'd picked the winner of the evening. The scent that reached my nose was the one that had been tempting me all evening. I squeezed a bit of the floral-fragranced lime on my taco, took a bite and found myself in Mexico.




Ok. That's an exaggeration. I didn't actually go to Mexico but I might have brushed the border.

Listen. I have had a lot of Mexican food in my life. Not only did I grow up in a Mexican church where I enjoyed the cooking skills of the amazing mamas there (and ate beans with every breakfast!), I have been on quite a few trips to Mexico and enjoyed the best of the taco stands there. My mama made homemade tamales every year at Christmas when we were growing up.

But this taco, my friends, is nothing like anything I've ever tasted before now. The pork, cooked to a melting tenderness, was perfectly seasoned. The white corn tortillas tasted like they'd just been made. Unlike typical Mexican food joints that smother their dishes in cheese to disguise the lack of flavor, the addition of queso fresco to this dish simply provided a creamy contrast to the sour orange, spices and salsa. And, there was just enough heat. In short, it is one of the best meals I've eaten out in a long, long time. 

Sadly, I had promised to give two of my tacos to Robert in exchange for part of his sandwich. And, I'm a woman of my word so I did - hoping he'd say he preferred his food. Just my luck, he fell in love with the taco too. I ate some of his sandwich but saved the rest for him. It was very good and in truth, if I hadn't already tasted the taco, I probably would have loved it. But, the flavors weren't as distinct as those of the tacos and it was a bit too creamy for my taste buds that night.

When we finished, our waiter did his best to entice us with dessert options but we were truly so full, we simply had no room for it. And, since we'd promised my sister we'd be home at a decent hour, we headed to the exit. I just had to take a picture of the bar there. Apparently they have over 100 tequilas. I believe it, don't you?

As we were leaving, Barrio's manager, Richard asked us where we'd be dining this coming Thursday, April 28, 2011. Apparently that day, Barrio is participating in Dining Out for Life, a fundraiser supported by local restaurants that raises money for the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, Arizona's largest non-profit AIDS service organization. They are donating 100% of their proceeds from lunch that day, served from 11a-5pm. So, if you want to get a taste of Barrio's incredible food and support a local non-profit, here's your chance.

While there are some pricey items on the menu, there are plenty of wallet friendly options. So, head on down and support this local restaurant. It's worth the wait and it definitely beats Applebees. Does anyone really still eat there with options like these?

Barrio Cafe
2814 N 16th Street

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