Who'd of thought there'd be low riders on Nicollet Mall or Brooks Brothers suits being replaced by top buttoned shirts and colors stuck in back pockets. Well, we still haven't. But you' ld think we'd be one step closer with a joint called Barrio on the street. If your a home-boy hankering for a little bit of East L.A....this isn't it. The word barrio means district or neighborhood. It can also mean a cohesive place of sharing which is more of what Barrio Tequila Bar is all about. Tucked into a former Dunn Bros. coffee store next to the venerable Irish Pub The Local, Barrio has carved out a cute little spot for the good looking and well healed downtowners to get their taco fixes along with the chance to sample over 100 tequilas.
I happened to walk in the same night the Vikings were playing a Monday night game and was a little surprised to see t.v.'s. Besides the obligatory flat screens poised at the corners of the bar, there was a giant projection screen covering almost an entire wall. Barrio is a long narrow space and the big screen was only directly visible by a few tables, but the reflection in the massive back bar mirror made the images available to practically everyone in the space. But just so not to turn Barrio into a sports bar on nights like this, they kept the hip Latin jazz cranked instead of the banal banter of the t.v. announcers. The crowd ranged from work shirts and jeans to stylish club wear that night seemed rather oblivious to the game. I liked the mix though, it kept everyone relaxed and having a good time.
Let's start at the bar. As we entered we were greeted by my favorite hot downtown bartender from Solera (a cousin of Barrio by the way). Jane was waving madly until we spotted her and responded. It took me awhile to see her because my eye was caught by the massive collection of tequila bottles. I'm a bit of a tequila snob and have tried to keep up with all the newest labels flooding the market in recent years, but this was confounding even me. There were names and bottle shapes I had never seen before. There were even some varieties of certain brands that I didn't even know existed. I wanted to start at the top of the list and taste my way down. Knowing the inherent danger in that I decided to start somewhere in the middle and just be happy with one or tow taste that night. I wasn't ready to end the night doing flaming shots while running down the mall howling at the moon. (I'll tell that story some other day.) Most tequilas in most bars are served in Margaritas. But the occasional shot is usually accompanied by a salt shaker and wedge of lime. Or training wheels as its know in the industry. Barrio has done there research and offer a group of tasty "compadres" to with your shot of tequila. The classic compadre found in many bars in Mexico is Sangrita, a blend of tomato, orange and lime juices spiked with a little hot chiles. They offered some unique and interesting flavors for the tequila novice of adventurous like Apple Ginger Soda and White Grapefruit Cherry Soda. The large, larger than the food menu, drink list even lists some well though out combinations of tequila and compadre to get you started. There are also rum, tequila and sangria cocktails listed along with a solid list of local and Mexican beers as well as Spanish and South American Wines.
As I said earlier Barrio is cousin to Solera and a vision of the most solid and creative restaurateur team in the Twin Cities, Josh Thoma and Tim McKee. They are focused and detail oriented and it shows. From the hip looking servers in logo'd denim or tee shirts to the dancing marionettes on the wall to the finely tuned menu. The menu may be small in stature, but awfully large in flavor. Simply organized into Small Plates, all priced at $7.50, Tacos and Enchiladas ranging from $3.50 to $4.00 and half a dozen Larger Plates. Chef McKee has taken his cues and style of cooking, preparation and presentation from what he has successfully developed at Solera and used it quite effectively at Barrio. He's created a menu with honesty and has avoided some of the obvious cliches that might have tempted a lesser experienced Chef. There are not nachos, chicken wings or fried ice cream. What there is, is a list of foods like the rich Queso Fundido done with a soft and stringy melted cheese (I'm guessing Chihuahua) that is miles from the orange gloop found elsewhere. We had it embellished with a spicy chorizo that added to its richness while at the same time offering a compatible counter punch of garlic and vinegar. The tacos we tried were all soft corn and filled with great roll ups like carnita, (braised pork), fried mahi or spiced shrimp. At $3.50 each you could easily get out of there with a couple of tacos and a beer for under $10. Not bad in this economy. Our favorite was a Crab Empanda, little fried pillows of red corn dough filled with fresh blue crab set against a tomatillo salsa and an avocado pico. We finished with a chocolate Tres Leche, or three milk cake that was just ok... I would have preferred the classic white version instead.
You don't need to wear you colors to get into Barrio. You don't even need to be wearing a designer's name either. But when your downtown and in the mood for a little of the "hood". Slip into Barrio and order a shot or two and maybe a little bite to go with it. Leave your low rider with the valet.