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Review: Barrio Cafe - Phoenix (w/ photos!)

A lot of people had inquired about the lack of reviews over the past two weeks. I blame J. Well, sort of. Okay, not really. But J. was in town and I was a bit busy with other things and then work issues arrived and I had that to deal with those and it was just a bad mix. But, that didn’t mean that I didn’t get to go out to some great places with J., who has become a wonderful guinea pig for my restaurant travels.

The first stop on J.’s and my culinary tour was a place I have wanted to try for several months. I know the reputation and the claim, but have never experienced it myself, mainly because I just kept forgetting. That place is Barrio Café on 16th Street, just south of Thomas Road in Phoenix.

J. and I arrived later in the evening hoping to avoid a long wait since Barrio Café doesn’t take reservations. We parked in the back since there is no street parking. I wasn’t aware that there was valet parking in the back, but that was neither here nor there since we had found a spot right near the entrance.

We walked into the place and it was hopping. We walked up to the host station and gave our name. The pleasant host told us that it would be a 45 minute wait. Sigh. Even at 9 PM, there was a wait, but we took a seat on the park bench outside the front entrance and talked while watching the traffic on 16th Street meander by. Thankfully, it was only about 30 minutes before we were seated.

J. and I walked to the back dining room and were seated at a four-top next to a front window. The table was set with a white, crisp tablecloth, place settings and a St. Joseph candle (the tall ones you can get at the supermarket). The interior of the restaurant was minimalist with white walls, track lighting and a few prints and flourishes here and there to break up the whiteness. Near the front of the restaurant, two musicians belted out Spanish music over a cranky sound system that would occasionally sear our ears with feedback.

Our server approached and provided us with menus, water, and a basket of bread with a marinated pepper spread similar in consistency to a tapenade. He took our drink order and J. stuck with water while I had a Diet Coke ($2.00) and a La Margarita ($5.50). J. and I looked over the menus and were really having a tough time deciding.

While we waited, J. and I tore into the bread and the pepper mixture. The bread was a rustic white with a nice starchy taste. The crust was chewy and the interior was soft and smooth. The pepper mixture was excellent. It was an outstanding mix of red and yellow peppers that had been marinated in olive oil and mixed with some light spices. There was no heat in it, but just a very flavorful pepper taste that was slightly salty and just a tad sweet. Our waiter returned with our drinks and we placed our order.

We opted to begin our meal with a standard favorite, the Queso Fundido ($9.00). I was craving the Posole Verde ($6.50) and J. had the Sopa de Chile Marron ($6.50). We also decided to try the Ensalada del Barrio Salad ($6.00). For our entrees, I went with the Cochinita Pibil ($17.50) and J. decided on the Enchiladas del Mar ($19.00). Our waiter departed and we finished off the bread.

It was time to try the House Margarita. I really enjoyed the subtleness of it. It had the lime, Triple Sec and tequila tastes, but it was perfectly blended so that none of them overshadowed the others. It was smooth and cold, but still had a nice tartness to it. I mentioned to J. that it was a solid margarita that was excellently prepared. There was nothing creative about it, but it did fit the bill perfectly and I was very pleased. J. enjoyed it as well.

About 5 minutes or so passed and our Queso Fundido arrived. I grabbed one of the round chips and scooped up a fair-sized portion of the gooey dip and popped it into my mouth. One word described the taste: underwhelming. While it looked appetizing, this queso dip was boring,boring, boring. It was melted cheese with no spice or flavor enhancement. Just run-of-the-mill cheese that had been melted and served with corn chips. The menu described this dish as having roasted poblano chiles, mushrooms, onions and chorizo, which we could see, but they all either were tasteless or overpowered by the cheese. Sadly, this wasn’t the way I wanted to start off the meal. The chips were okay, but, like the queso, nothing really exciting, and a few were greasy..

J. and I stopped poking at the queso and waited for our soups to arrive. They did shortly and I was very happy to see a big bowl of posole set before me. The posole was hot and bursting with flavor. The broth was rich and meaty and the hominy was soft, but still with some texture. The addition of some freshly shredded cabbage really added a wonderful texture that made this dish shine. Thankfully, it washed away the disappointment of the queso.

http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c20...

J.’s Sopa de Chile Marron was a puree of both sweet and tangy peppers served hot with spices. The soup was slightly thickened and exceptionally delicious. The sweetness was predominate, but in a good way. I loved how soft the soup was on my tongue and it was a superb contrast to the saltiness of the Posole. J. adored the soups and lapped up every drop.

http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c20...

Next up was the Ensalada del Barrio. In a deep, white bowl, spinach leaves had been tossed with toasted pecans, apples, Roquefort, roasted tomatoes and then dressed with a sweet and spicy vinaigrette and topped with crumbles of queso fresco. This was amazing. The salad was very fresh and the mix of tastes was perfection. J. and I were thrilled with the mixture and found it a hard call as to which of the soups or this salad was the best of the bunch.

http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c20...

We had another round of water and soda before our entrees arrived. There was a ten minute respite between the salad and the entrees. My Cochinita Pibil was a substantial serving of slow-roasted pork with an anchiote rojo with sour orange and a mild salsa. A small heaping of queso fresco and several corn tortillas accompanied the meat. The pork was outstanding. It was moist, spicy, tender and the smattering of citrus from the sour orange was incredible. I couldn’t have been happier. Mixing the pork, salsa and cheese together and putting it into a corn tortilla made for great eating. There was also a small serving of some sort of mashed roasted potatoes, but it seemed to be more of a filler than anything else. The potatoes were a total minor player because I completely forgot they existed until I saw the photo again.

J.’s Enchiladas del Mar were blue corn tortillas stuffed with shrimp, scallops and crab and topped with a queso de cabra sauce and sprinkled with queso fresco and chopped roasted tomatoes. J. loved the seafood and blue corn tortillas, but said that the dish was marred by the queso Fundido we had had for our appetizer. “Between that and the queso sauce and cheese on the enchiladas, I am overloaded with the whole cheese thing,” J. said. I am sure J. would have enjoyed the dish much more if we had skipped the Fundido all together. While it was a solid dish, J. preferred my pibil by leaps and bounds.

Even with the Fundido issue and J. not enjoying the enchiladas fully, we both were stuffed to the gills and ended up passing on dessert, even though I would have loved to have tried their Churros filled with Goat’s Milk Caramel. Perhaps another time.

We requested our bill and the total was $77.83 including tax. The service was very friendly, accommodating and attentive. We had no complaints on that department.

J. and I walked back to the car and noticed that even late in the evening, Barrio Café was still serving plenty of tables. I can see why. With the exception of the terrible Queso Fundido, we were quite happy with our meals. (I won’t protest about the issue with J.’s Enchiladas because we had no way of knowing the Fundido issue would affect the Enchiladas.) Without a doubt, the standouts were the Pibil, the salad, and the two soups. Lucky for the diners at Barrio Café, these are menu standards.

So, a big thumbs up for Barrio Café. I dislike their no reservations policy, but it won’t keep me from going back to try a lot of the other items on their menu. I would definitely put this on par with Los Sombreros and am happy I finally got to Barrio.

Barrio Cafe
2814 North 16th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Dress: Casual
Notes: Valet Parking in back. No reservations accepted.
Website: www.barriocafe.com
Additional photos can be seen at www.feastinginphoenix.com

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  1. Seth:

    I'm glad you pointed out the soups. They look great.

    I have saved room for dessert on a couple of occasions, and I think the churros and flan are both excellent.

    The only Mexican restaurant I know with neither beans nor rice on the menu.

    I am looking forward to trying the duck entree, or the rellenos with shrimp and scallops. Has anyone tried these?

    I've had a couple of experiences at Barrio where the food was a little inconsistent. Maybe I was a victim of the Chef's day off. I always have high expectations.

    1. Interesting. Jamie and I have been generally underwhelmed by Barrio (3 visits, I think, or maybe 4, over 2 years) but the queso fundido has always been the one standout. When we've had it, it has included lots of chorizo and plenty of flavor. On our last visit we both tried enchiladas -- mine were with mushrooms, and I don't remember the filling for his. Both were drowned in heavy, rich sauce, and we were both disappointed. I've tried the cochinita pibil and found it rather plain and flavorless, but others rave about it. The luck of the draw? Different line cooks? I haven't tried the posole. Believe I had the duck on our first visit and wasn't all that impressed with it, either. We've tried a couple of the desserts and Jamie really enjoyed the churros with cajeta (he loves anything with cajeta). I keep wanting to love Barrio, but haven't gotten there yet.

      Sarah C

      2 Replies
      1. re: kittyfood

        I really enjoy the Conchita Pibil. It's a very Yucatecan dish, which is something you never see around Phoenix.

        One thing noone's mentioned is the guacamole that's made tableside. I like it because you can tell your server how chunky and spicey you want it. I can't stand creamy guacamole..bleccch.

        1. re: kittyfood

          Funny, I absolutely love the mushroom enchiladas because of the richness. Mmm... We've also enjoyed the quesadillas with lobster, cochinita pibil, and torta. We've tried several of the desserts, including the churros, and have liked them all. I think it's been too long since I've visited. Hmm...

        2. The mushroom enchiladas are rich, with flavor that is. There cannot be anything wrong with wild mushrooms, goat cheese and a white truffle cream sauce! They are supposed to be rich.
          The duck? With a tamarind chipotle sauce it's fabu.

          1. Barrio Cafe is superb, and I never begrudge the wait there. With a margarita or glass of wine, it goes by quickly.

            These days, tableside guacamole is a cliche, but Sylvia's version is a standout -- I have had people who swore up and down that they hated guacamole taste it and be converted on the a spot. They finish with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds, and their bright pop puts the exclamation point on a perfect dish.

            1. Anyone have an estimate for how long the wait will be for a party of 5 either this Saturday or Sunday if we got there around 5:30 or 6:00? Any tips regarding a better time to get there? Thanks.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Itslikeimsayin

                Unfortunately, they tend to be busy and there is a substantial wait unless you get there right before opening. My fiance and I waited 45 minutes at 9:00 pm for just the two of us, so you have to gauge accordingly.

                That being said, the bar is nice and the drinks are good, so having a cocktail and conversation will help pass the time.

              2. Their pollo pablano and 'sangrita' (bloody mary made with tequila instead of vodka) are fantastic -- although i prefer their sunday brunch to dinner. The energy of the restaurant is also a major plus.

                1. Check out the google forum for information about a chow outing at Barrio

                  1. Any idea how the crowds are for Sunday brunch? We hope to get there right about the time they open this Sunday.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: sheriffblalock

                      There is no wait when you arrive at 11:00am on Sunday.

                    2. My wife and I enjoyed the BC during the New year and found it to be well worth the drive from Scottsdale.
                      I grew up in LA and it kind of reminded me ( except much better) of the former serenata de Garibaldi. The food is delicious, the atmosphere very bohemian chic and the service super. we also bought a couple of the BC tee shirts with Comida Chingona on the front and a cooking chef calavera on the back. A nice badge that our friends really liked. We also liked los Sombreros but we would rate the BC a solid A experience and Los Sombreros a B to B+.

                      1. I have been on a quest to find an authentic Mexican Restaurant here in Phoenix. My friends raved about Barrio Cafe and I have to say that when I visited it last year it was great. Last night we went there and it was simply "awful" . First off we order the guacamole....prepared fresh at the table - yes but with his back to us - what is that all about?? and it was chunky!! and cranberries in guacamole is not a good thing! Then we get a basket of bread with the little bowl of tampenade on top, now it would be common sense for the service staff to take that out and place it next to the basket on the table but no not here. We order margaritas, and the kids have Mexican Coke. Next thing we know - our entrees arrive, we haven't seen the wine menu yet. So our wine is ordered and arrives mid way through the entree!!
                        I ordered the duck, which tasted like liver and the skin was left all curdled up underneath. Disgusting. All vege sides were identical. We did order the churros which were delicious. Total time from start to finish - 38 minutes!! Talk about turning tables asap! I am surprised they didn't push us out the door. Plus we had an 18% tip added to our bill, 4 adults two kids....
                        The best part of the meal was the Mexican Coke which Chef Silvana Salcido Exparza had no hand in preparing. Thank goodness they have no intention of opening a new location

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: nickers

                          No offense intended, but your complaints (other than the flavor of the duck) seem pretty trivial...not enough to be so extreme as to label the place "awful." I've never actually been to Barrio, but "chunky" guacamole is not unusual in the least. In fact, many prefer their quacamole that way instead of the over-processed homogenous "smooth" guac you might buy packaged somewhere. I'm not sure I get being so upset because the server had their back to you when preparing it, or because someone didn't remove the tepanade from the basket after carrying it out that way...the place seems fairly casual from what I've heard so it's not surprising the service isn't nit-picky detail oriented and formal. I do think you have a valid complaint with the short turn-over time (can't stand that, especially when paying good money), and the 18% added for 6 people (somewhat tacky, but still not that unusual for 6).

                          I can handle shoddy service, as long as the food makes up for it. So, the question is, how was the food for the rest of your party?

                          1. re: crsin

                            Well, we've never found a reason to be disappointed with the Barrio Cafe. First discovered it when in Scottsdale for a group of dog shows earlier this year. Ended up having 2 dinners and brunch during the shows. Went with some extremely picky friends who didn't send a single dish back to the kitchen (their usual habit). Returned a month later for a dog show in Glendale so we'd be able to dine at the BC.
                            We're flying into PHX this weekend so we can enjoy both dinner Saturday and brunch on Sunday with a friend with a Cordon Bleu education. I think she'll be alright with the food, but I won't be crushed if she's not. We like it, we like the staff, and we'll keep finding reasons to visit from Los Angeles.

                            1. re: marchael

                              We've been there 8 or so times; only once has something seemed a little off. My cochinita pibil was still tasty, just not as stellar as usual. Every other time I've been, it's all been delicious.

                              I suspect people who really *only* like inexpensive Sonoran food tend to dislike this place, as that's not what they serve. Otherwise, I can't imagine anyone calling it "bad," but there do seem to be occasional nights when it's not quite as good as usual. That can happen anywhere though, even places much more expensive than BC.

                          2. re: nickers

                            Chunky guacamole is the authentic version rather than the smoot guac usually served in Sonoran style Mexican restaurants. Cranberries isn't typical but it is also not unheard of. BC has been doing guac this way since they opened.

                            1. re: Poerz

                              I agree. It's made in a molcajete, as is common in Mexico, so of course it's going to be chunky.

                              I find it interesting that nickers has only posted twice on Chowhound - two negative comments regarding Barrio on the same day, and has never posted again.........