2814 N 16th St
Phoenix, AZ 85006, United States
“Don’t always believe what you read”. This oft-uttered comment, and a refresher lesson we have learned from the recently reviewed Sun Sui Wah, applies to many aspects of life, restaurant reviews included. All reviews, ours included, are really just the opinion of an individual, or a small group of individuals. You’re better off finding someone’s opinions and tastes who match your own, and trusting them, than taking someone’s opinion, no matter how knowledgeable, as gospel when your taste buds say otherwise.
Barrio Cafe has received many accolades from local reviewers. “Best Modern Mexican Restaurant”. “Best Tequila Selection”. “Best Mexican Restaurant”. “5 stars”. “Top Ten Latino Chef”. And many many more. Based on Arizona’s proximity to Mexico, I was hoping for some fantastic mexican flavours paired with some modern techniques. Based on geographic proximity, acclaim, and yes, the reviews, I was expecting something great.
We show up on a Friday night to a long wait. Barrio Cafe does not take reservations, so you have to show up to put your name on the list. Then wait in the tequila bar that fronts the establishment. This would be great, except the tequila bar is packed, and tiny. There are people everywhere – waiting outside, pressed against the window, loitering on the street. We head down the street to find a sports bar, to wait our requisite 90 minutes. We get back 70 minutes later, and their estimates are close. We’re still 30 minutes out.
Lurking in the entrance, we finally score a couple of seats at the tequila bar. I’m dining with Almattone this evening. We order a tequila. El Conquistador Anejo for me, a Gran Centenario Blanco for Almattone. Barrio Cafe’s selection of tequila is extremely impressive. I could go on and on about the wonderful qualities of reposado, blanco, and anejo, but i’ll save that for another post. Needless to say, these aren’t your shot, lemon wedge, and salt lick tequilas. These are fine fermented beverages.
After 90 very long minutes, we are finally seated – hungry, and extremely cramped. Barrio Cafe is “quaint”. Tables are tight together, and they have definitely out grown their space. I don’t mind a more social, tight setting, but this is uncomfortably tight. There is not a lot of room. Otherwise, the decor is pretty plain and generic – nothing notable, but nothing offensive either.
We start with an order of their renown table side guacamole. After having a basket of unmemorable bread dropped off (bread!?), the server rolls up a cart filled with various fresh ingredients, and a small bowl of tortilla chips. He explains the various ingredients, and then proceeds to mash up one avocado. ONE. For 10 bucks. I appreciate the service, and the quality of the ingredients, but one avocado seems a bit cheap. The guacamole was good, and even a bit unique. All the regular ingredients, but with the addition of pomegranate seeds. Added a great crunch and a really nice sweetness to complement the lime and the serranos. This was a good guacamole, but i had trouble with the value. Almattone knows that look on my face. He jokes about the time I ate 5 bowls of chips and salsa before a meal, and had to get the meal to go. I yearn for those times.
For our entrees, we look for some of their more unique dishes that would showcase the flavours and skills of their Yucatan Cuisine. I order their signature Cochinita Pibil ($19) – 12 hour slow roasted pork with achiote rojo and sour orange with a Yucatan salsa. Typically, the marinating and the slow cooking in banana leaf would result in a tender, flavourful, rich pork. Unfortunately, the resulting pork is bone dry, and lacking in depth and complexity that would balance the acidity, the flavour, and the heat from the achiote. Very disappointing.
Almattone orders one of his favorite standard comparison dishes, Enchiladas Suizas ($17). More cuisine from Mexico City, nonetheless, a very popular dish that is fairly easy to make. These enchiladas are stuffed with chicken and served with a delicate tomatillo cream sauce, and of course as all Enchiladas Suizas are, topped with melted cheese. In this case, topped with Queso fresco. I always think of it as Mexican comfort food.
The Verdict? Surprisingly poor. Everything on the plate looked like it was just tossed together, without much deliberation or consideration. Flavours were fairly bland – Suizas is pretty mild to begin with, but there is definitely missing some depth. Usually, the interplay of rich chicken, roasted tomatoes, the softness of the cream, the tang of the queso fresco combine to bring about a very fresh, light, explosion of flavour. These have little impact on the palate.
While the disclaimer says “Barrio Cafe serves food that is reflective of southern Mexico cuisine and chef Silvana’s own original creations, therefore our food is not hot or extremely spicy”, I feel Chef Silvana has dumbed down the menu to appeal to a safer, wider demographic. The food lacked depth and complexity. The hallmarks of Mexican cooking – appropriate spicing, and depth of flavour from slow cooking techniques are missing. The prices are reasonable, and the tequila selection is fantastic. But when it comes right down to it, these are only nice additions if the food is up to par.
Don’t believe everything you read. Critics love it, but i’d rather eat at a taco truck. Pass.