Epicurious Eating: Barrio Star
Published Thursday, 27-May-2010 in issue 1170
Much has been said and written about Barrio Star in the short two months it’s been open. The eatery, a whimsically decorated space that could pass as a hip martini lounge, has been both praised and disparaged for its newfangled approach to “Mexican soul food” – criticized particularly for its dinner prices.
Crafted by owners Isabel Cruz of Isabel’s Cantina in Pacific Beach and Todd Camburn, a young, ambitious graduate of San Diego Culinary School, the menu injects wholesome ingredients and slightly unique constructs into familiar south-of-the-border fare.
For starters, there are no $18 burritos on the menu, as it’s been reported by a handful of bloggers and media. Burritos are actually nonexistent here. Yes, there is an emphasis on open-faced tacos piled with carnitas, carne asada, poultry, halibut or tofu – and admittedly they aren’t fast-food cheap. But nor can they be equated to those buried in generic cheese and iceberg lettuce that we find along the beaten track.
The tacos are served in trios using homemade corn tortillas that feel soft and nourishing in the mouth. Some are drizzled with avocado sauce; others take on chipotle cream or fruity-tasting guajillo chili sauces. An order of carne asada or grilled halibut tacos cost $15. The remaining options are priced at $13, and all include a modest-size bowl of mildly spiced black or pinto beans.
For those craving a side order of financial justification with their meal, the answers lie in Barrio’s quality control manual (to a reasonable extent).
The beef hails from Brandt, where the cows are fed “natural diets” of alfalfa and corn without hormones. Free-range, vegetarian-fed Jidori chickens are the upscale poultry of choice. They appear also in a highly satisfying entrée featuring a moist and zesty half bird rubbed in cumin and chilies and served over “power rice” ($18). In addition, pork butts used for carnitas are braised in beer. The cheese found in most dishes is Cojita (considered “the Parmesan” of Mexican curds), while the sauces and corn tortillas are made from scratch.
And if it’s any consolation, the restaurant has lowered its prices a notch since springing onto the scene, likely in response to public outcry. Nonetheless, a plate of sliced cucumbers flavored with cilantro-lime sauce and chili spices will set you back $3.50. They’re novel and coolly delicious, but we had to wonder if they are any more labor-intensive than the cured carrots available for free at most taco shacks.
An equally memorable starter was a grilled ear of Guadalajara corn brushed with jalapeno butter. My companion, who works nearby, was thrilled to learn it’s also on the lunch menu, saying that he’d gladly plunk down the asking price of $3.50 for it again and again.
The most expensive entrée on the menu is sirloin steak marinated in cilantro-lime sauce and served with shoestring plantains and steamed greens ($19). Beef lovers know the dish is precisely on par with current market prices, so no complaints there.
Price points begin dropping by a few dollars for items such as the “Brazilian Bowl,” a mélange of coconut rice, black beans, steamed greens and mango salsa that comes with a choice of meat or tofu. Consumed by the tacos and half Jidori chicken, we passed it up despite strong recommendations given by our waitress and several people I know.
Barrio’s house-made Sangria is a stimulating come-on to the Latin flavors that pervade. It’s made with champagne, white wine, fresh orange juice and prickly pear puree. In all its incarnations, Sangria rarely dazzles me. This did. Another cocktail, which my companion ordered but ended up rejecting, is the blackberry margarita made with jalapeno-infused agave. I found it acceptable, but agreed that the pepper component was too harsh, thus snuffing out the deep resonance of the fruit.
In what is perhaps the craftiest use of chilies that I’ve tasted in a sweet dish resides in Barrio’s flourless chocolate cake. The surprise ingredient is chipotle, which sends a tickling heat to the back of your throat a few seconds after the front of the tongue gets hit by dark chocolate. Reasonably priced at $6, my companion took full possession of the dessert after allowing me two bites.
Barrio’s atmosphere may seem cold to some, hip to others. Concrete flooring dominates the fabric-free scheme, although plays well against a central backlit bar, vivid-blue walls, metal chandeliers and orange plastic chairs. The music playing that evening provided the touch of warmth – crisp, low-beat decibels of what might have been Big Sonic Chill. Now if only other new restaurants would follow suit and take sledge hammers to their flat-screen televisions, the modern dining world would be a better place.
Beginning June 6, Barrio Star will introduce breakfast, available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Expect healthy, original dishes at hopefully carefully thought-out prices.