Barrio treats tequila with wine-style reverence

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

McKee worked with Barrio's executive chef, Bill Fairbanks (a longtime La Belle Vie sous chef) to develop the menu, which is based on street foods from Mexico and Central and South America. Largely composed of sharable small plates, the menu reminded me of a Latin version of Solera's Spanish tapas. And after sampling roughly half the items on Barrio's dinner menu, I didn't find a single item I couldn't recommend.

It's only natural to draw comparisons between Barrio and Masa, the neighboring upscale Mexican eatery owned by the gourmet Italian restaurant group, D'Amico & Partners. While Barrio draws from a broader geography, has a clubbier vibe, and a lower price point, the menus both offer basic taqueria fare alongside more upscale items, such as crab empanadas. Barrio's $4-and-under taco section includes home-style pork carnitas and chewy skirt steak as well as a more elegant spiced shrimp with tomato/mint salsa and a Tecate-battered, fried mahi-mahi. Snacks like these, and the red chile enchilada with a fried egg and chorizo, all have the bold, simple punch of a post-shift chef's meal.

Small plates, all priced at $7.50, are balanced between hearty, humble fare and lighter, spa-style dishes. On one end of the spectrum, Fairbanks serves a pair of rustic barbecue pork sopes—a thick masa cake topped with pulled pork, avocado, and habanero-pickled onions—that seem made for street eating. On the other, he's created a diver scallop ceviche with grapefruit, orange, cilantro, and avocado that looks like it came straight from the La Belle Vie kitchen. (In fact, Fairbanks demoed the dish there this summer when he was testing recipes.) A few of the small plates incorporate Barrio's signature spirit, though it's difficult to detect the tequila's effect in the finished product. A bright mix of papaya, avocado, and watercress freshened up a fatty, tequila-cured salmon, while a vivid lemon-ginger mojo (a Cuban sauce) enhanced the smoky flavor in a sugarcane-skewered, tequila-marinated shrimp.

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

Location Info

Map

Barrio Tequila Bar & Cafe

925 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Details

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

The large plates may seem simple, but their subtleties make them shine. Baby-back ribs are prepared Oaxaca-style, which means the barbecue sauce has hints of tamarind, chipotle, and ancho chile, and they're served with earthy black beans and creamy fried plantains. A nice piece of seared ahi tuna was served on a bed of quinoa (the petite grain is native to South America), with tomatillo, avocado, radishes, and cucumbers that made the dish pop and crunch with texture. At lunch, the menu maintains a similar hearty/light balance. The Cubano is no slapdash sandwich, as each of its elements has been carefully considered: fatty pork shoulder, ham, Swiss cheese, and mustard are tucked into a crusty Vietnamese banh-mi bun. A succulent piece of mahi mahi, steamed in a banana leaf, is served on a plain salad of romaine lettuce and hearts of palm but accented with both a cilantro-pumpkin seed pistou and a bell pepper-citrus relish.

The dessert list was fine, but compared to the rest of the fare it seemed less accomplished. The citrus flan I tried was good, but not interesting enough to supplant a traditional one. A tres leches cake was dressed up with cute little pearls of Valrhona chocolate, but the cake itself had a grainy texture, even when sopped with milk that tasted like leftovers from a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. But the churros—ahh, the churros—were a textbook execution. The light, airy, deep-fried fritters glittered with sugar and dissolved into a molten sweet-fat puddle on the tongue. The accompanying dunking chocolate, thick as pudding, is made from a traditional Oaxacan variety that's flavored with almonds and cinnamon. The kitchen rounds it out with a hint of chile, less to surprise the tongue than to deepen the flavor.

These sorts of fine-dining subtleties—the care taken to source just the right ingredient, to calibrate the flavors, to garnish the plate—will probably go largely unnoticed by most of Barrio's clientele. But the restaurant's relaxed vibe makes it feel okay just to like something without having to know why. We don't necessarily need to dissect the nuances of a Barrio margarita to know it's good, or, as my friend put it, "a whole lot better than what I barfed into my fan." 

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