Eating the World

Barrio Cafe: Good -- But Glorified -- Mexican Food

Hey, readers, get ready. We're putting new meaning into the term "street food." For Chow Bella's latest mission -- "Eating 16th Street" -- we've employed a young woman who's literally eaten her way around the world. Alex Rodriguez has eaten borscht in Moscow, steak in Buenos Aires and a "life-changing panna cotta" in Bra, a small town in the Piemonte region of Italy. Now we've set her palate loose on Central Phoenix's 16th Street. Rodriguez will try it all, from Jefferson Street north to Thomas Road -- and report back, place by place.

Check out the slideshow of the full Eating 16th Street series.

See also: Is Barrio Cafe's Take on Mexican Food Authentic? And Does It Matter?

The Place: Barrio Cafe The Food: Upscale Mexican cuisine The Backstory: Mexican cuisine in a non-pretentious setting for 10 years. The Price: $17 for enchiladas suizas.

I'm probably going to get a lot of heat for what I'm about to explain.

But this is Phoenix -- so why not?

I have issues with upscale Mexican food. Call it being a traditionalist. Call it being a hater. Both apply, in this case, so let me tell you why.

To me, Mexican food is naturally rustic. It's meant to be eaten with your hands. It's messy. It's rough on the untrained palate. The roots of most (if not all) Mexican dishes are campesino foods. Meals that are meant to be eaten by the layman, the worker, not the mayor.

That's the beauty of it -- that it's not meant to be fancy.

Barrio Cafe has an admirable mission: a little neighborhood eatery providing authentic southern Mexico cuisine and chef's original creations in an unpretentious atmosphere.

All throughout my tour of 16th Street, I've had people tell me that I was lucky to stop at Thomas Road -- so I could end with Barrio Cafe and end the series on a high note. It's clear Barrio Cafe is a local favorite.

The restaurant is lovely -- and, yes, unpretentious. In fact, it feels very much like sitting in someone's dining room. Local art adorns the walls, and on the summer day I visited, a lone server took care of the winding down office lunch crowd. My experience there was very pleasant.

I straddled between the enchiladas suizas and the mole. All I could think to myself was that I'd already had mole recently (at La Condesa), but if I ordered the enchiladas, I'd instinctively compare them to my mom's (comparing an ethnic dish in a restaurant to that of an ethnic mother is almost always bad news for the restaurant, by the way).

What a pickle. Luckily, Richard, our kind waiter, highly recommended the enchiladas and offered a sample of the mole to taste.

The enchiladas were nothing to write home about (and for nearly $20, that was kind of a problem). They weren't bad, but they weren't as good as other enchilada suizas as I've had at other restaurants (not limited to Arizona). The suiza variety is particularly heavy on tomatillo, garlic, cilantro, and (if they're made to be spicy) jalapeño -- four ingredients that burst with flavor all by themselves. Cream mellows these out, but it's not supposed to suppress the flavors to the point of nonregonition. And when this dish is done right, you can really point out all four independently.

These were bland to me, but I understood what chef Silvana was trying to do: modernize a classic (great plating, zucchini slices, refined flavor). Some things aren't meant to be modernized, though. The Mona Lisa is a good example. Enchiladas Suizas are another.

I understand that as a two-time James Beard Award nominee, the chef has obviously been doing something right. And while I'm quite against the James Beard Foundation, I do appreciate the recognition for her merit. Still, I couldn't help but ask myself why a beautiful salad with balsamic vinaigrette was served as an accompaniment to a torta that a friend ordered.

I thought this was supposed to be an authentic eatery. Tortas are a one-meal show. Meant to eat on the go, primarily for the people who don't have time to sit and have a lengthy lunch. I know times have changed, but are we sticking to authenticity, or not? Is a fancy salad supposed to supplement the meal? Why does it need supplementing if the torta is a meal in itself? Looking at the photo, you can't tell if it came from a Mexican restaurant or a bistro. I couldn't wrap my head around the idea. Is it a clientele thing? Is it supposed to be a "higher standard?" Why is it even necessary? Cucumbers with lime are fine (and authentic). Julienne them, if need be, to make look fancy. But greens and balsamic?!

Who else gets bothered by a salad? Ugh. People like me who are adamant about keeping ethnic cuisine authentic, and if not, avoiding use of the term.

I was disappointed by my lack of love for Barrio Cafe. I so desperately wanted to like it. I think the small-town eatery whipping up love and authenticity is a honorable mission -- but if not done correctly, it just doesn't translate well.

Que lastima (what a shame).

Eating 16th Street So Far: Eating 16th Street: Let's Begin at Pollo Sabroso La Frontera Taco Truck: A Hit and a Run Asadero Norte de Sonora: Family Friendly and Fit for a King Mariscos Playa Hermosa: From the Shores of Mexico to a Colorful Central Phoenix Restaurant Salsitas: Blame it on the Alcohol Pro's Ranch Market: Contents of a Fiesta Under One Roof Filiberto's: My Burrito of Sorrow La Cocina Economica: Bringing Familia from the Kitchen to the Table Hacienda El Bar-Ril: Central Phoenix Home to Diamond Tacos de Cabeza Dulceria Mayra's Y Mas: Small Place Packs a Huge Party La Condesa: Great Eats, but that Wait is Rough Mariscos Ensenada: Hold On to Your Margarita to Escape the Hyper Tension Tortas El Guero: Life-Changing Mexican Sandwiches Realeza Michoacana Paleteria and Neveria: The Ice Palace of Confection La Nueva Pico Rico Dulceria is a One-Stop-Shop for Pachangas and Herbs

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Alex Rodriguez