El Barrio 2211 2nd Ave. North (205) 868-3737
I have already had several arguments over this new addition to downtown dining. Well, just call me El Luchador and give me a mask and a cape to wear. Not really, though my nickname in Cuba is El Zorro, come to think of it.
My third time at El Barrio for dinner (I think they had only been open for four nights, at the time), I had to restrain my friends, first thing, from thinking they had to drink Dos Equis in a misguided attempt to rival the most interesting man in the world. Not that they couldn’t throw back shots of tequila and even jello shooters, if they absolutely had to, but it is by no means obligatory at El Barrio.
And I had to disabuse them of the notion that they would order by number, as in “Give me the Number 9 (burritotaco combination plate with an extra enchilada—with all the fillings being identical iterations, just wrapped in a different form of dough, of the same ground beef, cheese sauce, and salsa). Sound familiar?
Let me stop my self right there, mister.
When you sample the salsa at El Barrio, which may be the first thing you encounter there, do not fail to appreciate the freshness that will be your first signal of the pleasing experience you are about to share. It is not like the so-called Mexican restaurants you are used to that can be easily replicated by a frozen El Patio dinner fresh out of the country girl’s microwave.
The only thing El Barrio has in common with that kind of Mexican restaurant is the El. Where are these hombres going out of their way to get good fresh tomatoes in January, anyway? Sorry country gal, these ‘maters did not come conveniently out of a can.
In fact, they are so loco en El Barrio, they are even treating the thousands of tortillas as if this were some sort of artisanal bakery and making them out of corn by hand. It’s a good thing we don’t have to tack on one of those European value-added taxes (VAT,€,£) or else they would probably be the most expensive tortillas in the world.
I went there for the first time with a new honey in town and she had a number of perceptive observations and altogether enjoyed the ambience, and even my company, apparently. She was on a nice roll that night but when she went online the next day and found out about Bunny, she did not find that the least bit funny—and the new girl got miffed and trashed all my notes about Drunken Mussels and the delicious Sopapia dessert. I’d hate to see what she might have done if she found out about Scarlet. So here goes nothing, no notes to refer to, strictly from memory:
My first test of any Mexican cuisine, whether authentic or Tex-Mex, is the guacamole. I am still trying to find some as good with big smooth chunks of avocado as my ex-wife used to make, if she can handle the compliment from me of all people, and I am still looking because El Barrio was so slammed that night, they were out of it. We had a couple of similar misfires on the menu because of the lively and apparently hungry crowds, so I will have to go back for the ceviche, but we eventually came up with more than plenty of great stuff to eat.
And honestly the new girl took over the whole critiquing process—or should we say, dígamos, la crítica--with such enthusiasm and authority that I thought I was going to be able to sit back and coast as an anonymous reviewer from now on. But even restaurant reviewing is not exempt from some of those female mysteries beyond the capacity of any mere mortal masquerading as a restaurant reviewer to understand—if we are talking about a male of the species as reviewer, at least.
So let’s start with the Mejillones Borrachos—sorry, I get carried away with any excuse to speak Texican, as you may be able to tell. I’m talking about the Drunken Mussels unlike any I ever had in their famous birthplace in Brussels, sprinkled here at El Barrio with a mild and creamy light-colored cheese and cooked in Tequila instead of the traditional white wine.
The new girl and I both noticed that both the mild cheese and the tequila were more or less lost in the mussel dish and did not add to that warmth and mellow savoriness you would expect if you were eating moules frites in La Grande-Place aux Bruxelles—mussels in Belgium, that is. And the broth in the bottom of the bowl was not so buttery rich that you had to sop up every bit of it with your crust of bread, as you certainly would in France. The broth was simply hot with alcohol and a little acidic.
I did enjoy the mussels themselves but the accompaniments could have been better, as we mentioned to one of the owners when he asked how everything was (the new girl’s not Southern so she is not obligated by custom to say everything’s fine, I just wanted to point out). He questioned us quite closely with seemingly genuine interest. Well, he’s from Cleveland, so does not necessarily know how we do things down here, either, bless his heart.
We also ordered a couple of tacos.
The new girl took five pages of notes on the taco al pastor—which I assume she destroyed just to spite me (which reminds me a little too acutely of the country girl’s MO for comfort)—but I know she shared my feeling that the pineapple salsa on the chile-marinated pork was very lively on the palate. I enjoyed the taco de hongos, filled with portobello mushrooms, though it was milder and earthier and not such an attention-getter. Did you know a Portobello is nothing but a big crimini, and vice versa, flipping the size ratio to determine the name of the mushroom, but that you can hardly spell portobello incorrectly, because portabella is also accepted, as well as portobella? I guess there are no standards anymore in this day of omg and lol, u and btw.
But forget all my roundabout flourishes and approaches, as Scarlet would say, and cut straight to the chase: You are probably still wondering—it’s like a refried reflex after decades eating nachos supremo at red and orange linoleum tables—pineapple? Portabello (sic) mushrooms? Where is the ground beef and cheese sauce dripping with grease, to which you have been conditioned in Mexican restaurants since birth? And don’t get me wrong, I like that too when I am in the mood for a lube job.
Unlike what you might think from some Restaurante El FillintheBlank-o on the Greensprings Highway, Mexican cuisine is both varied and rich, a fusion of Arab influences brought to Spain from North Africa and transported along with the rest of the Moorish-Moroccan- Castilian menu into the heartland of the Aztec empire whose traditional ground corn dishes survived even if the Aztecs themselves didn’t.
One thing that did not exist at all in Mexico before the conquistadors’ arrival—this will blow your mind after digging through so many melted puddles in a lifetime--was cheese. And certainly the cheddar cheese that the country girl buys at Winn-Dixie in plastic re-sealable packages, pre-shredded, you know the kind that tastes like paper, and sprinkles onto her frozen microwaved burritos is still unknown down there, except maybe in violent border towns.
And Christopher Columbus brought the first swine to the New World that the Mexicans gladly turned into slowroasted pork now famous on the Yucutan peninsula.
One thing the Spanish discovered there, heretofore unknown even to Italians, was the tomato. So there you go. Should we say the Mexicans are responsible for the modern take-out pizza? All the stereotypes give way to cross-cultural fusion cuisine in which influences came and went from everywhere. So, really, El Barrio can do whatever it wants to if you see the point I’m making.
El Barrio is actually more like dining in Mexico where the best-tasting thing I ever ate was flash-fried pompano fresh from el mar, not a build-it-yourself taco topped with day-old shredded iceberg lettuce at a Wendy’s salad bar.
On my second visit to El Barrio, Scarlet liked the cavernous warehouse architecture, the dark natural woodwork, and the exposed ceiling ductwork that reminds her of her own minimalist condo in Soho. El Barrio means “the ‘hood” in Spanish—or really to parse the Castilian concept more precisely, an area where like-kinds congregate--but as you may have guessed we are not talking about Chinatown here.
Then there is the wall-sized mural, homage to Diego Rivera, by graffiti artist Shane Boteler, that along with the mystical swirl of Mexican skeleton themes has some tactile elements of paint and strips of other glittery materials coming out of the wall to actually enter the plane of the dining atmosphere.
We each grabbed a quick quesadilla.
Scarlet had the veggie--to hold onto her girlish figure one more day, as she would say, and since she could not finish it and still wear a size zero I got a whole quesadilla wedge all to myself. It was surprisingly flavorful and delicious, not so lightweight-ladylike, largely due to the sublime goat cheese inside. What a nice texture men and goats invented together.
I was feeling more carnivorous beforehand so I ordered the braised beef. At first I thought it was a little mild for my taste but the spice of the tomatillo sauce lingered with a long finish that grew to a very subtly satisfying piquancy.
I ended up being impressed with the moist tenderness and zest of it. The spice had notable complexity to it (if I only had those notes with all the lost epiphanies) as when you compare Tobasco to more one-dimensional hot sauces like Texas Pete.
Since I obviously liked the place, I had to take Bunny, the cause of all the unnecessary trauma for the new girl. Bunny had the right idea (as if anything could stop her) that this was as good a place as any to order the Woodford Reserve Bourbon (since they don’t yet carry her favorite Pappy Van Winkle). To eat, I gave her a recommendation from my previous wealth of experience but I decided to try something different myself, the chorizo meatloaf.
I don’t throw that word around lightly because chorizo is by origin a Spanish pork sausage that gets its distinctive smokiness and deep red color from dried, smoked red paprika peppers—that actually originated in Hungary. But those Mexicans made like Frank Stitt and substituted local produce for the foreign ingredients, so Mexican chorizo is typically made with chile peppers instead.
Is El Barrio more Galician (España) or Jaliscan (México)? Based on the smooth, mild, smoky flavor of the meatloaf, as well as the international acumen of people from Cleveland (my experience at Princeton was well-travelled nouveau riche Shaker Heightseans), I am going to guess Spanish, but I could be wrong. That is where I could use the new girl in town’s note-taking ability.
Bunny claims she does not eat meat but the second I turned my back to talk to Jocelyn I turned back to catch Bunny trying to hide a few crumbs of chorizo falling from Bunny’s very lips. You have to watch that girl like a chicken hawk, I swear!
I made sure most of my chorizo meat loaf and cotija-mashed potatoes were still there on my plate. Cotija, by the way, is a hard cow’s milk cheese that originated in Mexico, named after the town of Cotija, Michoacán. Cotija cheese is produced July through October only because the cows are fed only on the rich grass that grows naturally on the mountains during the rainy season, giving the cheese a unique color and flavor.
Queso Cotija is an artisan cheese made by hand, thus every cheese is itself unique. The production method involves milling the curds into small pieces before pressing and aging. When cooked, it slightly softens, but does not otherwise change its shape or consistency. In the mouth, the cheese breaks up again to a sand- or grain-like consistency, adding to the texture of dishes such as cotijamashed potatoes por casualidad (by coincidence, for you gringos out there).
Even though this is not your typical so-called Mexican place I went ahead and had a Margarita in honor of Cinco de Mayo and I was pleased with the fresh-juice taste and little tamarind tang it had to it. That just proves my point because the tamarind is a pod-like fruit from a tree native to Africa that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, prized for its sweet-and-sour taste and high acidity.
I also took a sip of Bunny’s drink and it was sweet indeed with her veggie quesadilla that I highly recommended. I endorse the Woodford Reserve and goat cheese pairing, but please do not make that gurgling fish motion with pursed wine-connoisseur lips and sunken cheeks, or spit your Bourbon. You never know with Bunny. I’m just saying.
And do you know what else we took a chance on and ordered for the table (remember my friends who were expecting deep-fried chimichangas)? Bunny, God bless her, I love her, readily agreed to give the Drunken Mussels another try. She is nothing like you know who— Bunny’s a sport, in fact. And guess what? The owner of the restaurant himself had actually listened to us (though discreet enough not to let on to Bunny that I had been there with another girl, shhhhhhh—now you see why this review’s anonymous, Wendy) and they had actually re-invented the dish at El Barrio according to the suggestions from my previous visit. They changed the brand of tequila to give it more of a caustic savor--and the mild cheese, formerly dormant, was now nicely accented. ĦQué rico! Muy saboroso. A real improvement. Bunny and I toasted to it, even though no one else at the table knew what we were talking about. Well, I am used to it by now.
Bunny just loves it that I am a man secure enough (though I absolutely detest that “comfortable in my own skin” cliché, which makes me want to wretch—I can just hear the country girl saying it, though there is in fact no one more spine-tinglingly neurotic—well except for—did I mention the crazy girl from Mississippi?)—where was I now? I’m sorry, but that insipid over-used phrase does make my skin crawl, no pun intended. Lovers of chick-flicks, please excuse me.
Oh yeah, I remember, I am secure enough to let Bunny be free to do her thing unfettered, whatever that may be, and she will always return to me (unlike the country girl who has to be locked in a cage and made to behave, against her basic nature). Bunny did agree that, though El Barrio is a place where you can hold your Bourbon and don’t have to fill up on Dos Equis, that I am the sexiest man in the world to her even if I am not, perhaps, the most interesting. That is music to my ears (I’m a Leo), or at least close enough. She actually enjoys my geography and history lectures. That is not what the new girl in town wanted to hear, though, I’m afraid. Oh well, her lawyer will just have to talk to mine about the rights to her image and intellectual property, including her notes inasmuch as they may be similar to my own observations. I hate to see the new girl learn the hard way whose town she is now living in, though—or worse, tangle with Scarlet. Bunny was having too much fun at El Barrio to notice all the falderol, fortunately for the new girl— because Bunny is fully prepared to pull the country girl’s hair and scratch her eyes out, and she more than deserves it.
This town can get pretty small, sure enough, but fortunately, now, it is big enough, open-minded enough, and culinarily sophisticated enough for El Barrio, so hold the petroleum-polymer cheese substitute for a visit from your country relatives. Do you mind if we listen in while you dicker and bicker back and forth at your table about any little old thing? In such a crowded, busy place, it’s just part of the general din, and it is definitely part of the fun of the ambience, so lighten up and forget it, for heaven’s sake. It’s El Barrio, Jake.