Barrio treats tequila with wine-style reverence

Terrific new bar adds brighter possibility to everyone's tequila story

Just about every drinker I know has a tequila story, and for some reason the stories always seem to end with the person hunched over the toilet, waking up in a stranger's bed, or spending the night in jail. One particularly regrettable tale—the one in which my friend, sensing he was about to be sick, crawled toward his bathroom, but only made it as far as his fan...which was sitting on the floor, blowing—began with margarita pitchers. The last time I had straight tequila was the bachelorette party at which I swore I'd never attend another. After watching the bride-to-be bite a hair off a random guy's chest, somebody ordered a round of shots. I tried to take my tequila for the team, but, instead, spat it out all over the dance floor.

But leave it to local real estate developers Tim Rooney and Ryan Burnet (Burnet worked with his father, Ralph, on the illustrious Chambers and W hotels) to partner with Tim McKee and Josh Thoma—the guys behind La Belle Vie, Solera, and Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque—to class up the much-maligned spirit. At their new tequila bar, Barrio, they're treating the spring-break party drink with a reverence typically reserved for wine.

Nicollet Mall feels worlds away from a genuine barrio—you don't see too many Chipotles in actual lower-class, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods—and the restaurant's clientele is less likely to be local Latinos than downtown revelers and convention-goers. The vibe at Barrio is more like that of a cozy Chino Latino. The dark, narrow storefront is swathed in red and black, lit with flickering tea lights, chandeliers, and a candelabra that looks like it's been dripping wax for decades. The eclectic decorative style could be described as Latin Goth, for its eerie, Day of the Dead-like festivity. The walls are covered with marionettes, retro bullfighting posters, and monochrome visages of Fidel and Che—has the Argentine revolutionary's image finally become the ultimate hipster cliché? It's hard to believe the space used to be a Dunn Bros. coffee shop/bike messenger clubhouse, with the mezzanine serving as storage for a Rush's Bridal shop.

Barrio serves over a hundred varieties of cactus juice
Alma Guzman
Barrio serves over a hundred varieties of cactus juice

Location Info


Barrio Tequila Bar & Cafe

925 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)


925 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
612.333.9953; www.barriotequila.comappetizers $4-$8; entrées $16-$22

Considering the care that went into calibrating Barrio's intimate atmosphere, it's a shame to see a giant video screen nearly spoil the mood—it was as gauche as a dinner-party host serving her guests on TV trays. How was I supposed to concentrate on a conversation with my friends when my peripheral vision was being infiltrated by images of John Wayne in a coonskin cap? Whatever happened to the quaint notion of offering one's companions your undivided attention, I wondered, just as my cell phone rang and I remembered that I needed to text someone.

Based on the size of the menus—food is listed on a narrow slip, while drinks take up nearly two sides of a broadsheet—Barrio puts its emphasis on what's poured, not plated. You could have a beer, or a glass of wine from the mostly Spanish and Portuguese selection, but that'd be like going to Matt's Bar and ordering the chicken sandwich.

Barrio's Jucy Lucy, as it were, is its 100-plus-bottle tequila list, sourced by general manager Junior Williams. The tequilas are grouped by seniority—blancos are aged less than two months, reposados less than a year, anejos less than three years, and extra anejos more than three years. Aging tends to replace tequila's bright, vegetal flavors with richer, smoky, Cognac-like ones. "It's amazing how much tequila can mimic other liquors," Williams notes. Barrio's shots are sippers, not shooters, which range from $4 to $60 a shot, and if you order from the top shelf, the bartender will literally scramble up a ladder and bring down the bottle.

If you're wary of taking your tequila straight, the menu offers several compadres, or chasers, which range from the traditional tomato-citrus sangrita to the most modern of mixers, Red Bull. A combo dubbed the Riebel Knievel (named after Jack Riebel, a former La Belle Vie chef who now heads the Dakota's kitchen), for example, pairs a shot of Cazadores Reposado with a spicy pink-grapefruit soda compadre. I liked the tequila, which had caramel undertones and a smooth, buttery finish, but in the end I found myself equally compelled by the perky, salty soda.

From there, my group moved on to margaritas and cocktails created by La Belle Vie's mixmaster, Johnny Michaels. Though I liked the idea of mixing in liquors like absinthe and Cointreau, I preferred the classic Cesar Chavez margarita to the more experimental ones. But overall, the drink list possessed more intrigue than we had tolerance. "I'm going to have to sleep at the W," my friend remarked, as she cut herself off. Fortunately, Michaels has created a stellar list of nonalcoholic concoctions, and there's no excuse for ordering a commercial soft drink when you could sip a blood-orange soda or a tamarind-cinnamon cola.

While Williams tells me that several of Barrio's servers and bartenders are tequila buffs, the staffers I interacted with didn't convey the sort of enthusiasm for the spirit that would have really encouraged me to explore. (If you're not satisfied with your server's knowledge, you may want to ask for Williams, who says he has tried every tequila in stock and is happy to create custom flights.) Perhaps a few more visits to Barrio will win me over to high-end tequila, but for now, I'd rather put $12 toward a small plate and a taco than a shot of Casa Noble Crist.

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