Chile Reception

Barrio co-owner Wendy Gruber manages the restaurant; chef Esparza tends the kitchen . . . and her fans.
Erik Guzowski

Silvana Salcido Esparza must know what it's like to be loved. Since opening her Barrio Café last summer, she's been positively drowning in adulation. The fickle dining public has embraced the chef in such passion, lines of would-be diners snake down the bistro's sidewalk, thanks to a "no reservations" policy. Overnight, she's become a Valley media darling, with Barrio eliciting gushing reviews in most every newspaper and magazine. There's been talk of big, Back East restaurateurs trying to woo her away to spark up their own city's dining scene.

This paper has even given her a weekly column, "La Calle," so impressed were its editors with her creative approach to cooking (see the following page). I get e-mails from readers who think she's neat, asking me to forward the compliments to her. The one time I met her, she was really, really charming.

So of course, I've come to Barrio doing my best to be objective, but still human. Perhaps it's a female competition thing, but a tiny part of me wants to hate the place. It's a bad attitude, I'm well aware, but c'mon, how perfect can one chef be?

As I turns out, pretty perfect, dammit. I have to work pretty hard to find fault with Barrio. And when I do, I feel pretty petty: Dinner portions sometimes are a little small. Desserts are a little expensive. And, on one visit, my ice tea doesn't have any flavor. Take that, Esparza.

It helps that Barrio Café serves exactly the kind of cuisine I adore: central-southern Mexican, meaning the real south-of-the-border stuff that makes the region so incredible, yet is rarely offered in the Valley. Instead of ubiquitous Sonoran, Barrio's recipes are culled from areas like the Yucatan, Oaxaca and Mexico City. (After throwing in the towel on a corporate career, Esparza gathered degrees in gourmet cooking, then backpacked through Mexico for several months to reconnect with her cultural cooking heritage – a perfect story, of course.) Just to keep things interesting, she draws on her classical French culinary training, too.

The result: In a town awash with Cheddar and Monterey Jack, Esparza shines with queso de cabra (goat cheese), queso fresco, Oaxacan cheese, and the unexpected appearance of Roquefort, Havarti and fontina. Where so many Mexican restaurants boast of their wild (yawn) accents of jalapeño-spiked cream cheese, Esparza shakes us up with luscious excitement like aceite de trufa (truffle oil), five-chile demi-glace, hibiscus-lime vinaigrette, and delicate jocoque (Mexican sour cream). More than just chicken and beef, we're also treated to duck, real crab, and whatever fresh daily fish the chef deems best from the market. Menu items change monthly, and there's no hiding behind tongue-numbing fiery chiles; these ingredients are explosive on their own.

Food like this hints at why I read Like Water for Chocolate from cover to cover in a single sitting. More important, it helps me and my sister Elisabeth forgive our mother for calling us New Year's Day to describe in drooling detail the feast she'd had the night before – she's been studying Spanish in Queretaro, a tiny village outside of Mexico City, and her host family prepared a celebratory banquet of such lavish regional specialties that she is contemplating never returning home.

So I stifle my jealousy. I really like Barrio. It doesn't hurt that the little place is fun – its plain white walls tarted up with colorful artworks by local talent – with upbeat Mexican music and a kitchen-sink clientele of professionals, young fashion hounds, solid baby boomers and a strong contingent of alternative lifestylers. Eavesdropping on the kaleidoscope conversations is delicious mischief.

This is not your everyday Mexican food. Some concern has been expressed by other critics that Barrio confuses diners by starting meals with complimentary French bread and tapenade instead of chips and salsa. Yet I don't see the problem. The crusty bread, baked fresh and delivered each day by a real French baker, is excellent, and each time we visit, Elisabeth and I scrape up every last speck of the roasted red pepper-garlic-caper spread.

Besides, Barrio's chips and dip are much too good to give away. I've had plenty of guacamole prepared tableside, but at Barrio, the appeal isn't simply in the theater of a white linen-draped cart wheeling up and a host hand-mashing the ingredients before our eyes. It's the best blend I've ever tasted, the avocado made brilliant with droplets of olive oil, white and balsamic vinegar, diced onions, tomato, cilantro, and the zinger: pomegranate seeds. Another dip, chile con queso, makes it impossible to enjoy the typical bland goop served most everywhere else. Initially, I'm not sure of the thin consistency, but the first bite soars with the lightly nutty tones of fontina, the mild manner of Oaxacan cheese, roasted and shredded poblano chiles, sautéed shallots and garlic, and, on request, crumbles of spicy chorizo. We scoop the dips on topopos (thick fried corn tortilla rounds).

We're not even halfway through our soup starters before Elisabeth is asking when we can come back for more. Twist my arm. This sopa de chile morron rojo is fantastic, thick with roasted red peppers, heavy cream and crumbly queso fresco. And Elisabeth offers the precise description of posole verde -- it tastes like the tacos she so adores when we're visiting Rocky Point. Indeed, the bowl brims with an intensely satisfying broth stocked with fork-tender chunks of green chile pork, hominy (dried corn), onion, and refreshingly crisp cabbage and radish.

Usually, I focus on a few favorites from any menu. Not so here. I want it all: the appetizers like the open-face tiny quesadillas capped with tangy Oaxacan cheese, creamy queso cabra, and fat garlic-tequila shrimp. I crave the many vegetarian fantasies offered, like the tumble of wild mushrooms over puff pastry with caramelized onions and roasted poblanos, or the surprisingly complex ensalada del Barrio, tossing together spinach leaves, toasted pecans, queso fresco, Roquefort, golden raisins, apple wedges, and tart roasted tomatoes in a subtly sweet and spicy vinaigrette.

I've completely lost Elisabeth's attention by the time the crepa de espinacas y hongos arrives. She has no use for me except as someone to pay the dinner bill as she marvels over the crepe bloated with fresh spinach, earthy mushrooms, salty crab and goat cheese swimming in velvety jocoque. So many distractions adorn our table it's hard to imagine that our mother's lauded Queretaro repast could have been any better. Cochinita pibil brings wonderfully moist 12-hour roasted pork with musky achiote rojo; pato de tamarindo is a petite boneless breast of duck seared and blanketed in a chunky, sweet-sour tamarind-chipotle sauce; and chiles en nogada takes roasted peppers and stuffs them with a magical mix of apples, pears, chicken and raisins under almond sauce.

Oaxaca is known for its elaborate mole sauces, and Esparza offers her own dramatic variation. Red or black, it's a sumptuous concoction of chiles, garlic, bay leaves, sesame seeds, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, onion, fried French bread, chocolate and corn tortilla ladled over banana-leaf-wrapped tamales, a chicken torta (sandwich) or chicken breast.

Elisabeth has come up with a way to get revenge on our mother for not including us in her Mexico trip: We're going to tell her about Barrio's desserts. It'll be torture for her to listen to us describe deliriously sweet cajeta (goat's-milk caramel) crepes stuffed with vanilla-bean ice cream, or bunuelos, crisp lacy fritters surrounded by caramel ice cream and generous sprinkles of toasted pecans. She'll be in agony, imagining huge forkfuls of Oaxacan chocolate cake, dense and filled with a nubbin of thick fudge mousse, then draped half-and-half with almond-chocolate sauce and unsweetened whipped cream. No matter how much she begs, we won't tell Mom where to get them.

Suddenly I remember a quote I read in an interview about Esparza's childhood. She was reflecting on growing up around the nurturing environment of her mother's kitchen and said, "I can remember that before my eyes were even open in the morning, the smells from the kitchen were calling me. I could hear the laughter and the voices of my mother and my grandmother as they were patting tortillas with their hands."

When I first read it, I recall thinking, oh please. Nobody is that perfect. But then I take another spoonful of Esparza's silky flan, the custard drizzled with espresso-Kahlua sauce. I take another sip of coffee, freshly ground to order from roasted Chiapas Izapa beans and presented in a French press.

Okay. So maybe Barrio is perfect. And yes, I can feel the love.

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Barrio Cafe

2814 N. 16th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006


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