Mexican-style restaurant veers from traditional border-town fare
By Frank Sabatini Jr.
By all accounts, Barrio Star is a Mexican-style restaurant. But it’s one festooned with hyper-hip design elements and a menu that veers from traditional border-town fare (once you read past its selection of tacos) to dishes such as plaintains topped with pork and chipotle cream, grilled sirloin with cilantro-lime sauce. There’s also a South American-inspired “Brazil bowl” with coconut rice and mango salsa.
If you’re visiting straight from the gym and want to keep those burned calories in check, there are also a la carte sides of steamed greens as well as tofu and soy chorizo that can be substituted for animal proteins in certain dishes.
As for the tacos, even those don’t entirely conform to the norm.
Served in trios with a choice of meat, poultry or fish, they’re complemented with chipotle aioli, Thai slaw, cilantro-lime sauce and other perky house-made garnishes that evade the “Bertos” of the land. Accompanied by creamy black beans (or pintos), their price points differ drastically, ranging from $13 for chicken or carnitas tacos to $15 for steak, salmon or catch of the day.
Visiting mid week (and passing up a table in the campy “pink room”), it became apparent that Barrio Star has established a devoted following since opening more than a year ago amid complaints about its pricing. Nearly every seat in the house was occupied, including those at the illuminated bar, where zany chandeliers dangle overhead. And with nary a stitch of fabric in the place, nobody seemed to mind that the un-buffered noise level is capable of jiggling that fabulous guacamole served alongside homemade tortilla chips ($4.50).
Since my last visit several months ago, the food tasted zestier. Co-owner and Chef Isabel Cruz, along with business partner Todd Cambum, have steered clear of lard, excessive dairy and over-salting. They’ve also omitted such standbys as quesadillas, burritos and fried rolled tacos (For those we go elsewhere after a vigorous bar crawl.)
Chicken Diablo is a luscious and ideal dish for sharing. You get a half Jidori bird accented with cumin, red chili and lime. The skin was perfectly crispy and the meat oozed clean juices into a split bed of whole pinto beans and “power rice.” We couldn’t detect any special, energizing ingredients in the latter, but the chicken was truly one of the tastiest preparations I’ve encountered all year.
Fans of chili rellenos won’t miss the spongy egg breading typically encasing the Anaheim chilis in most other restaurants. Here, the pepper is filled with mild white cheese (Jack?) and punctuated with citrus and silky cotija Ranch sauce, both of which instill unique tanginess to the pepper. We ordered it topped with mildly marinated shrimp and steak that stood confidently on their own without the support of salty, powdered seasonings.
In every meal I’ve eaten here, it’s been impossible to resist the Guadalajara corn, a single ear slathered judiciously with jalapeño butter and dusted with cotija cheese (the Parmesan of Mexico). The corn is grill-roasted with sporadic kernels showing off that dark, caramelized goodness you’d achieve on a backyard barbecue. Whether ordered as an appetizer or side, it’s a dish that sings to summer.
We skipped dessert only for lack of room in our stomachs, although I’m assuming that the flourless chocolate cake still listed on the menu includes the same chipotle that I remember from before. If you get it, expect a tickle of heat in the back of your throat a few seconds after the warm dark chocolate hits your tongue.
Barrio’s tequila-based cocktails embrace everything from herbs and house-made syrups to agave and cayenne pepper rims. From a long list, the blood orange purée margarita is a standout. The booze factor is high, although combined with the purée, fresh lime and agave, it’s feels as though you’re slugging down kid-friendly punch. Designated drivers, beware.