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