It’s odd when a stranger reads your mind. I was thinking: What a pity it is that I’ll have a lovely experience at a restaurant, and want to return, only to find the food and service are completely different. Junior Williams, general manager of Barrio Tequila Bar, seems to have the gift. One of the first things he tells me, as I lustily am scooping Made To Order Guacamole (more about that later) onto homemade tortilla chips, is that Barrio’s kitchen is absolutely consistent.
I believe him, because across Barrio’s diverse flavors, the constant is precision: simple ingredients perfectly balanced. One does not expect less from Bill Fairbanks (La Belle Vie), who researched the menu, or co-owner Tim McKee (La Belle Vie, Solera).
Now, back to the guacamole. It is not some eccentric ingredient that makes pure divinity of avocado and garlic. It’s made fresh, and served immediately, scattered with tomatoes, radishes, and just the right amount of jalapeños. If guacamole is something you only order if you’re starving, reconsider. It is entirely worthy of its listing on the Small Plates menu, all of which are priced at $7.50.
One could make an entire meal of a few, but as I only had one night to experience the entire menu, it was a Roman-style food orgy, beginning with the decadent Crab Empanadas with salsa verde and avocado. Cutting into one automatically induces anticipatory oohs and ahs, as a luscious blue crab/tequila pepper rapture escapes its fried crust.
Next are the Potato Sopes. Though a potato and corn flour fried dough easily could go the way of the state fair, this plate offers an unexpected bright, multidimensional flavor with a sprinkling of chèvre and red-chili tomatillo salsa.
I tell Williams that I particularly am enjoying how each dish seems to open up as you eat it, tasting first one element, then building to the next. He smiles knowingly, sharing that McKee is known for that sort of “architecture.”
The Tequila-Cured Salmon follows suit with papaya and avocado vinaigrette, and walks that happy tightrope of salty sweet—not unlike a margarita on a plate.
Speaking of which, one could enjoy any of these plates with wine, and the wine list—though compact—is fitting. However, when you have a selection of tequila like Barrio’s, it would be a tragedy not to sample a few cocktails. With our small plates, my dining partner and I traded off on the Caesar Chavez margarita ($9), done with orange bitters, Grand Marnier, and Cazadores Reposado tequila. Usually, the instant someone says Grand Marnier, I pass, but this cocktail was not too sweet. It’s definitely Barrio’s own concoction, and one hell of a margarita. The Macho Camacho margarita ($9) is a bit more earthy, with a blood orange ancho and 1800 Black Tequila, plus cava to cut the sweetness.
On to the cocktails. The Good the Bad and the Ugly ($9) is a tequila cocktail with tamarind cinnamon cola. If you’re questioning the tequila/cinnamon combination, rest assured that mixology master Johnny Michaels designed the drink menu, and he would not lead you astray. Even the Mama Cita ($9), which reads a bit like a spring break regret (tequila hibiscus punch with a splash of cava), is light and effervescent. The Guerro ($9) is a table favorite—a marriage of Cazadores Reposado Tequila, cointreau and grapefruit soda.
Barrio’s tacos and enchiladas, ranging in price from $3.50 to $4, are the perfect happy hour fare. We tried the Pork Carnitas Taco, the Fried Mahi Mahi Taco, and the Red Chile Enchilada. All were absolutely lovely, but our table swooned over the enchilada, which is topped delicately with a fried egg, and stuffed with chorizo and two kinds of cheese. Our server, Raul Saud, grins as he titles it a taste explosion.
At this point in the evening, my dining companion and I only could stuff in half orders of the Seared Tuna ($22) and the Sauteed Shrimp ($18), both from the Larger Plates list. The tuna offers a nice smokiness in the sear, and is served atop quinoa. The shrimp are tossed in tangerine-serrano mojo, and served over cilantro rice, but a finishing splash of lemon olive oil makes that dish a masterpiece.
For a digestif, we could not pass up Williams’s off-menu offer of Maestro Dobel, the world’s first diamond tequila. Barrio currently has the largest tequila list in town, and the Maestro is not found elsewhere in Minnesota. At $22 a shot, it’s an extravagance, but it’s worth it. I never have known a tequila to taste so buttery, with notes of citrus and vanilla.
I don’t know if the large Tuesday night crowd was drawn in by the funky gothic Latin decor, the smart location on Nicollet Mall, the happy hour specials, or the fabulous food, but the place was hopping. In fact, Barrio has been so successful since it opened last August that plans are to open a second location in St. Paul this summer.
As to Williams’s promise of kitchen consistency, I will hold him to it, as I plan on returning to Barrio—often.
Barrio Tequila Bar / 925 Nicollet Mall, Mpls. / (612) 333-9953 / www.barriotequila.com