The truth is that walking past Barrio, located at Fifth Avenue and Broadway, on a near daily basis kind of gave me a panic attack. I know the spot is run by a mother-daughter team and is the only place for Native American fare downtown so I was rooting for it from the get go before I even stepped through the door.
However, I also know that the sheer size of the restaurant is ambitious to say the least and the build out, which includes rustic furnishings, upscale finishings and a giant community table with a fire pit in the middle, must have cost a fortune. That made me very anxious for the family business.
I definitely have respect for Kelly and Shanti Gomez for doing it big and bold from the start. However, on my visits it became clear that that boldness did not translate past the décor.
The prospect of Native American cuisine envisioned in fine dining terms is an exciting one, which in this modern take blends Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui traditions.
With lunch, dinner, tapas and happy hour offerings, it seemed the spot had its ducks in a row to be a hit. The menus all feature region-specific ingredients like cholla buds, prickly pear, agave and nopalitos that add a unique take on desert fare. That all being said, this is about the point in talking about Barrio where I'm going to start sounding rather repetitive. For everyone involved, it will be like a scratched Nickleback CD: no one wants it to happen and especially not over and over again.
What I imagined Barrio's flavor palette to be is a mix of smoky, spicy and earthy natural flavors that let the ingredients sing. What I got was a lack of any seasoning really at all. I expected excitement and found little more than a high price tag.
These issues are pervasive even at the starter and tapas level. The cholla bud pico de gallo ($5) comes with a couple spoonfuls of its namesake that, like a hipster at Coachella, is begging for a hit of acid. Similarly, the nopalito salad ($11) had little tart or salty flavors to speak of, instead tasting mostly of well-washed iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and avocado with a couple pieces of cactus here and there.
When the drinks arrive at the table, you'll find that names like "Pineapple Serrano Cilantro Cocktail" and "Rosemary Margarita" don't amount to any of the flavors they really promise. Instead, the agave spirit based beverages just taste of cups of sweetened tequila that range in price from $8 to $10. During happy hour, you can at least get $3 select beers, $4 wells, $5 glasses of select wines and $2 off of the tapas menu dishes.
For the main event, you can honestly just skip the Barrio bricked pressed totoi ($21), which is a grilled half chicken that looks to have an herb rub but tastes of little more than just chicken, despite being topped with roasted green chilis and a cilantro chutney.
Options like the bistro enchiladas ($14) filled with kalabacitas and topped with a green sauce and queso fresco, the fried Old Tucson beef tacos ($14) and the red chile con carne dough god (a.k.a. frybread, $15) were more tolerable, but mostly because they were either fried or covered in cheese and sauce. There was still little spice, seasoning or salt to speak of on these plates, though.
The brightest star on the menu was the prickly pear glazed beef spare rib ($24), which was pleasantly sweet and even salted due to the prickly pear glaze. However, even this dish was not without its faults, as the outer crust on the rib had been charred to a tough and far too crisp black. Digging past its rough exterior, the inner meat on the ribs was tender and paired well with its glaze.
All entrees are served with a cup of soup or a side salad, as well as rice and beans. Local tepary beans were a welcome sight, but they came in a watery, unappealing broth. The side salad faired the same fate as the nopalito main salad. As far as the soup is concerned, which can be a chicken and veggie, white fish and veggie, caldo de queso or something else depending on the day, they tend to be a passable first taste, but certainly not fitting of the upscale digs.
Surprisingly, the rice was one of the more flavorful options, which stood out past the entrees each time and was one of the few empty serving dishes on the table. Certain entrees also come with a side of kalabacitas topped with queso fresco, which are also on the more impressive side of things.
Without salt or pepper shakers on any of the tables, eating these dishes became a little repetitious and one dimensional. Even the desserts, which offer a Yaqui bread pudding ($6) with a whiskey caramel sauce, sweet dough gods ($5) topped with honey and powdered sugar, and a corn and poblano custard brulée ($6), offered little more than a single note on which to end the meal.
I hope, for Barrio's sake and the sake of downtown diners, this place takes cues from other Native American joints in town like Mother Hubbard's, Café Santa Rosa and the newly-opened Manna from Heaven and kicks everything up several notches. You can't always rely on a pretty face to do the work for you.