Cocina del Barrio opens in Edina
With its red-and-black color scheme and bull-themed decor, the new Cocina del Barrio in downtown Edina looks a lot like its sister tequila bars in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, right down to the gothic candelabra drowning in drippy white wax. But the third of Ryan Burnet and Tim Rooney's Barrios adds the Spanish word for kitchen, cocina, to its name, emphasizing its expanded food menu. This restaurant is, first and foremost, a place to eat—and maybe have a tequila shot or two.
Cocina del Barrio, which is the first restaurant Burnet and Rooney have launched after their partnership with La Belle Vie founders Tim McKee and Josh Thoma dissolved, tailors their original concept to a broader, suburban clientele. It inhabits the former Coldwell Banker Burnet office building at 50th and France (Ryan Burnet's father, Ralph, heads the company), which seems to indicate that, while real estate around the metro may still be struggling, restaurants, or at least the ones at this intersection, are booming.
The new restaurant is the largest of the three Barrios, with about 180 seats currently available and more to arrive outside when weather permits. It's populated with several funky artworks, including a bright exterior mural and, inside, two bulls on a glittery background and an abstract metal bull's head. There's a three-sided bar in front, a dining room with an open kitchen in the middle, and a private dining table in back that seats up to 18 diners who can sequester themselves behind a heavy pair of sliding doors.
In spite of Cocina's vast size, diners who arrive at, say, 6:30 p.m. midweek might face more than a half-hour wait as after-work drinkers and early diners quickly fill the tables. Edina women are known for their aggressive accessorizing, and there is no shortage of glitz-embellished shirts and jeans, glimmering jewelry, and shiny handbags at Cocina. Surely the George Clooney-esque bartender would be the subject of much whispered discussion if the volume of the music and conversation allowed for anything other than shouting.
Besides the old 24-hour Perkins at Highway 100, Cocina stays open later than any other Edina eatery, serving until midnight or beyond six nights a week and until 11 p.m. on Sundays. It's the first real "bar bar" to arrive in the once-dry city—or certainly the biggest and chicest spot with a 1 a.m. liquor license. (It's also, evidently, Edina's first real foray into the cuisine of Spanish-speakers. Notes from the City Council meeting at which the restaurant's liquor license was approved refer to the business by the name of its Italian alter ego, "Cucina del Barrio.")
A Barrio restaurant wouldn't be a Barrio without an extensive tequila list, and at Cocina pours come in two sizes: the Deadwood, which is a regular shot glass filled to the brim, and the Barrio, a more slender flute that deceptively delivers about twice as much alcohol. Entry-level tequila drinkers might order the Milagro ($4 a Deadwood) in its blanco, reposado, and anejo forms to understand how the spirit's character gets softer and richer as it ages. The beverage menu offers several fruity sippers called "compadres" to chase the spirit, but both times I tried to order anything beyond the blood orange soda or Fanta, the bar was out of the ones I requested.
The lack of inventory likely doesn't concern most of the diners who'd rather drink wine or cocktails. The wine list has been lengthened and several new cocktails have been added, including a couple of classic mixes that substitute tequila for the expected alcohol. Both the Bloody Maria and the Javier Wallbanger are fun—and surprisingly tasty—variations on their vodka-based cousins. If you'd rather have something more exotic, the Jimadore Vacation, a lemon-lime blend with coconut rum, smells like suntan lotion and tastes like it should be sipped on a beach.
Cocina's menu was designed by chef Bill Fairbanks, who helped develop the fare for the original Barrio and now oversees all three kitchens. Many of the Latin American street food specialties overlap with those at the other locations, but Fairbanks has added several lighter, more healthful items, such as seafood dishes and salads. Edina's cake eaters now must prefer lobster ceviche.
Barrio defined itself with a fine-dining spin on casual, south-of-the-border fare, relying on careful ingredient sourcing and painstaking prep work to lend its dishes brighter flavors and more visual elegance than those at the typical taqueria. The repeated small plates are just as good as those at the other two restaurants. Guacamole is made with avocado mashed at perfect ripeness and comes with hand-cut tortilla chips that are thick and crispy, oil-soaked without being greasy. Such careful execution justifies spending $7 on something you'd be perfectly capable of whipping up at home. The chicken and black bean tostada, which vanishes in a few rich, crunchy bites, is a familiar item from the other Barrio menus, as are several of the tacos (neither the tongue tacos or the hard-shelled, ground beef-filled "gringo" tacos made the cut at Cocina). The fish taco also remains a favorite: Mahi mahi is delicately fried in a beer-batter suit and served on two corn tortillas speckled with cabbage, cucumber, and tomato.
Among the new small plates, Fairbanks's version of the jalapeño popper is a spendy (three peppers to a $7 order) but more refined take on the bar food version of chile rellenos. The peppers are filled with white Oaxaca cheese, so they're far less gooey if you're concerned about detonating a gut-bomb.
The Cocina menu adds several new salads to the Barrio repertoire, among them one that pairs ahi tuna with an avocado and tomatillo salsa, cucumber, radish, orange, and peppery red watercress, a green rarely seen on local menus that looks rather like maroon basil sprigs. (In fact, Fairbanks's menu introduces diners to several lesser-known ingredients, including Mexican huitlacoche, or corn smut, and sour oranges.)
The ceviche selections have also expanded, as have seafood dishes in general. Unfortunately, with the exception of the spicy shrimp ceviche, the other seafood I sampled didn't shine as much as I'd hoped. A generous portion of lobster ceviche looks stunning, as the red-and-white meat is dressed with avocado, hearts of palm shaved into rings, and scallion slivers. But when I took my first bites, the lobster lacked flavor—it wasn't nearly as sweet and briny as its appearance seemed to promise. The wafer-thin yucca chips ended up being the best part of the dish.
Another problem with some of the small plates: The seafood gets masked. Crab tastes most glorious cracked straight from the shell and squirted with a little lemon, not buried beneath a tortilla. Cocina's filling might just as well have been chicken or cheese. The same problem plagued the $5.50 shrimp tamale and the $11 order of lobster-filled empanadas.
Among the six new entrées, or "platos fuertes," seafood also features prominently. The caldo de mariscos, or seafood soup, is chock full of whatever's fresh—mussels, clams, fish, prawn—but its ruddy broth, a traditional blend of ancho and guajillo peppers and garlic, had all the appeal of leftover bathwater. While sometimes the wait staff could stand to be a little less zealous—those intent on finishing a dish need to protect the last few bites before the plate is preemptively swiped—its attentiveness was appreciated when my party ordered the red snapper with king crab. An employee noticed us picking through the dish and searching, mostly in vain, for bites of the crustacean, and gracefully whisked out a small bowl of extra meat for our party and another that had ordered the same item. The dish was tasty, but the fix was necessary to make it worth its $26 price tag.
I had better luck with the wood-grilled achiote chicken with black beans and sweet plantains, though the entrée list's real winner is the pork rib chop. The bone-on, two-inch-thick trophy comes from local pork producer Compart Family Farms and is brined for 48 hours, then wood grilled so it's pleasantly crusted on the outside. But inside, the pork chop will likely be plumper and juicier than any other you've sliced in your life: It eats almost like a steak. With accompanying corn pudding, roasted mushrooms, and kale, the dish is a great example of the kitchen's capabilities.
For sweets, a pumpkin cake comes with salted caramel ice cream, which is flavored with cajeta, or Mexican goat's-milk caramel, actually, and the unwitting diner wouldn't be faulted for wondering if the cream had spoiled. But get past the odd funk of the first bite and the sourness adds a nice complexity. If you'd rather keep things simple, stick with the crowd-pleasing churros, Mexico's airy, sainted doughnuts that taste even better dunked in liquid chocolate.
So far, Cocina del Barrio's menu doesn't have quite the level of consistency that the original Barrio did when it launched—but, admittedly, the first Barrio set a high bar. With two successes already under its belt, the Barrio team should be admired for upping the ante and establishing an even loftier goal.
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