Monday, June 6, 2011

Barrio Cafe

Within one of Phoenix's many suburban sprawls of endless strip malls, Barrio Cafe stands hidden in plain view. After completely missing the sign a couple of times, my friends and I parked and walked into this unassuming restaurant with little or no expectations.

Talk about a set change. From suburban sprawl to a playful interior, walking into Barrio Cafe was both welcoming and exciting. The comfortable conversations and the alluring smell of slow-cooked meat made me feel like I was in a casual sit-down Mexican joint back in LA.

That's why I was surprised when I saw that our meal started with a complimentary basket of bread and tapenade, not warm chips and salsa. With a raised eyebrow, I took a bite, ready to take a plunge into a world of disappointment. The tapenade of capers, olives, deeply-roasted red peppers, and garlic was a beautifully rich play on the classic Italian tapenade. The peppers added a charred sweetness to the mix, which acted as a perfect, Mexican-inspired replacement for the more classic ingredient, anchovies. This was a great introduction to the world of Barrio Cafe and set the tone for the rest of the meal.

For good measure, we ordered the Guacamole Casero, which did come with a fragrant basket of warm chips. The guacamole combined the various flavors of red onion, green serrano peppers, cilantro, garlic, tomatoes, and pomegranate seeds. Wait, what? Yup. Pomegranate seeds. Barrio Cafe's tendency to take serious classics and add a nice little twist was becoming very clear. The guacamole had a good amount of heat that was balanced out by the generous amount of avocado, while the sharp red onion and cilantro were balanced out by the tomatoes. The garlic, strangely, was enhanced by the pomegranate seeds. The tart, sweetness of the pomegranate added a distinctly bright note that made lime or lemon unnecessary. You know a bowl of guacamole is good when you don't even need the chips. If you can get over the seedy interior of the pomegranate, which I think added some nice texture, then you'll find yourself at the bottom of a bowl of this guacamole in about three seconds, eyes glazed over, not knowing what just hit you.

Our first main was the Chile en Nogada. You can smell this roasted poblano chile from a mile away. The smell was so noticeable that I thought a plate of roasted poblanos would come out. Instead, the plate that arrived to our table had a single, gargantuan poblano. It was huge. The crinkly skin suggested a deep roast, and the chile came stuffed with chicken (okay, sounds good), onions (yup, makes sense), garlic (of course, no big deal), pecans (yea, sure, why not), pine nuts (uh huh), apples (okay, this is getting a little weird), pears (wait...), and apricots (is this really going to taste good?). All that topped with an almond sauce, cheese, a pinch of cilantro, and pomegranate seeds. Wow. That's a mouthful. But with my first mouthful, I was hooked. Sure, the overall effect of these ingredients was a dish that leans more towards the sweeter side of the spectrum, but the sweetness was measured out by the nuttiness and smokiness of the dish. A generous sprawl of those tart pomegranate seeds added a welcome brightness to the dish. If you don't think you can finish an entire plate of sweet and nutty ingredients, share this with somebody. Definitely get it, though.

Last but not least was their famous Cochinita Pibil, a twelve-hour slow-roasted piece of pork with achiote rojo, sour orange, and Yucatecan salsa. The pork was beautifully tender and juicy for the most part, and the achiote added a nice kick of sweet, spicy, and nutty all at the same time. The achiote also added more of that nice fire-roasted flavor that also comes from the pork's cooking process. The sour orange wasn't too noticeable, but when I hit a sour note, it was really great. I kind of wished there were more of the sour orange, but any more might have taken away from that flavor's whimsy. The salsa on top added a good brightness to the dish. The salsa was essentially a pico de gallo with red onions and riper tomatoes. The dish came with a stack of tortillas, but they were pretty unnecessary if you want to skip out on the carbs. While this was definitely an awesome dish, don't go ordering this by yourself. If you think you know what a filling plate is, think again.

Each main dish came with a generous serving of Roasted Vegetables and Chipotle Mashed Potatoes. The roasted vegetables were nice and smokey, but the chipotle mashed potatoes stole the show. The mash takes on a beautifully orange hue and taste like the richest jar of chipotles in adobo sauce in the world. If you don't know this about me already, I'm obsessed with chipotles, and these mashed potatoes enhanced that obsession. A lot.

Would I consider Barrio Cafe authentic Mexican food? Definitely, but beware. Each dish will surprise you with a noticeably creative punch from Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. Every dish was a journey through clear, rustic, and intense Mexican flavors, with frequent steps outside this common understanding of Mexican cuisine. If you find yourself roaming around Phoenix's suburban sprawl, keep your eye, and nose, out for this hidden gem.

Barrio Cafe
2814 N 16th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85006
(602) 636-0240

GET: Guacamole Casero; Chile en Nogada; Chipotle Mashed Potatoes.


  1. Why haven't I heard about these chipotle mashed potatoes? And man, that pibil looks so luscious.

  2. I gotta try to make those chipotle mashed potatoes at some point, haha.


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