Tried the new barrio spot across from mears park last night and were rewarded with a fun night and some tasty food (and great drinks).
We arrived around 7 and it was packed, seemed to be mostly after-work crowd lingering over happy hours, lots of button down shirts and large groups. We were told it would be about 20 minutes and they took my name and cell phone number, and we considered hopping out to check out the music in mears park but found some seats at the bar (at the front corner of the bar there is a round "growth" of sorts which was easily able to accommodate our party of four).
The space is really well done - attractive and kitschy but not overdone in the least. The wall of mounted luchador heads, giant stainless bull sculpture, and clint eastwood movies projected on the side wall were all big hits, and between these and the packed room the place really had a lively vibe going (having. hard. time. writing. this. about. St. Paul). Oh, and the had slid the front glas open onto the park where music in mears park was keeping things even more lively.
We started with a round of tequila shots, choosing to do a horizontal tasting from each of the four menu categories - a blanco, reposado, anejo and extra anejo. I believe we got a corzo, hussong's, corzo and milagro romantico, respectively. The progression made the smoothness and depth in the extra anejo extra apparent - and showed me (in this case anyhow) that you get what you pay for in fancy tequila - the milagro romantico is, apparently, a mix of reposado and extra extra anejo that comes in a cool multi-compartment bottle the (excellent) bartender brought over to show us the pour- for 30 bucks a shot its nice to see/hear about what you are drinking.
we tried four of the "compadres" accompaniments/washes that they offer - each were tasty but i preferred my order of the tamarind cinamon cola to the others. spicy pink grapefruit was good as was spicy cherry and i thought the ginger apple could have been a bit sweeter.
It was abundantly apparent that the bar is really on point here - the bartenders were attentive and working hard, but still doing a great job (tasting mixed drinks regularly using straws, checking back and offering to top up an overly sweet mix, for example).
the cobra verde, old cuban, good bad and the ugly and macho camacho were also very good - i think that unless you have a serious aversion to one of the listed flavors in their drinks you will be very happy with about anything you order.
for food we tried the mushroom quesadilla (great), guac (really good - the chips are the thicker variety so if you like em light and crisp they may not be up your alley, but they are a great example of the thicker ones, not overly fried, well salted and clearly super fresh), the potato sopes which were surprising but very good, little fried potato cups with a creamy goat cheese/lettuce and chili salsa combo filling them up. they were out of the tequila marinated salmon so we got some tacos - the carnitas was first rate, red chile enchilada w/ chorizo and fried egg was excellent and had amazing depth, and the mahi taco was ok (not enough flavor or fish when so many other dishes really shined).
Overall it was a really good night out - the service from the bar was great, the food was excellent and the drinks were clearly the star. My dad, who has been in the business for about 40 years nearly spat his drink all over me when i told him they had opened less than two weeks before, and his impression after his first half hour in the place was "this spot would do well in san francisco". Sadly, we don't have that much more time here in the twin cities, but another trip to barrio (probably during happy hour, especially if were paying our own way) is definitely in the works.
a note on ambiance, this place was rowdy and fun but not an awesome place for a quiet conversation. it had a lively bar feel, so if that is what you are looking for its a great choice. i would say taking a 60-something there could be a bad decision, but it wasnt in my case because i know my sixty-something well and know what he likes.
a final note- there was a decidedly out of place middle aged couple sharing a high life 40oz (out of pint glasses!) behind us, and it was as though they were planted as a joke - i understand not everyone goes for tequila but i would have sworn that they put forties on the menu as a joke, but i guess not.
st paul definitely just got a bit cooler. and on a night like last night, we can certainly use it.
ps - almost forgot dessert, ancho chili chocolate cake was good but probably wouldnt get it again - right as one of us said "i dont taste the chili" she stopped, assessed and decided i was there, but very late on the palate and nicely lingering. raspberry sauce on the side was good but the cake was a tad dry (still tasty). Churros were great, light, very fluffy and served with a not too sweet "mexican chocolate" dip. I grew up on abuellitas and this was not as sweet or as cinnamon-ey as expected but was a nice foil for the fried batons of heaven.