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.
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.
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.
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."