Barrio Queen is not the restaurant it was originally intended to be.
From chef/owner Silvana Salcido Esparza, the casual eatery in Scottsdale's SouthBridge complex opened late last December with a focus on inexpensive Mexican street food and more than 350 kinds of tequila. But Barrio Queen's sophisticated sister, Silvana Bistro, a higher-end concept defined by Esparza as "the Euro-Mexican cuisine known in southern Mexico" (think snapper Veracruz, chile verde ravioli, and salmon mousse empanadas) that sat alongside Barrio Queen, changed everything.
Opened in early January, Silvana Bistro shuttered about three weeks later, with Esparza saying she felt as if she was being pulled in a direction that wasn't her.
"[Silvana] Bistro was just getting her legs, but I was not feeling it," Esparza told me in February. "I felt as if the restaurant was too stuffy — not like I had imagined — so I killed it quickly."
But she kept the space. And so almost overnight, Barrio Queen went from seating for 60 to seating for over 150, and Esparza made changes to its menu such as reducing the number of items and expanding the restaurant's entrees for diners desiring a full meal. Plus, Esparza acknowledged issues with the service at Barrio Queen, saying it was an area she would place the most focus on.
Today, Barrio Queen is a mash-up of sorts — one that feels like its original elevated Mexican street food concept mixed with what could be a second location of Barrio Cafe, Esparza's original spot for upscale Mexican fare in Central Phoenix. After all, where else can one find a $2.50 taco and a $24 mole in the same establishment? The mix isn't necessarily a bad thing, but issues regarding preparation and flavors make Barrio Queen a sometimes good, but not-always-great restaurant. And, perhaps more important, one that doesn't fully reflect what Esparza's fans know the Valley tastemaker to be capable of.
To understand which dishes are popular (and less popular) at Barrio Queen, one needs to spend only a few minutes with one of the restaurant's servers. On none of my visits was I ever steered toward the pricier entrees — even popular holdovers from Esparza's Barrio Cafe like the cochinita pibil and chile en nogada were never mentioned. When I did try a few of them, I understood why.
The meat of my Cornish-hen mole was very dry, its thin coating of black fig mole unable to save it; the pan-seared and spice-rubbed chicken breast of my pollo a la coco suffered the same fate, which is unfortunate considering I enjoyed its topping of sautéed onions and roasted peppers in a nutty cream sauce; and my chile relleno, wrapped in a delicate crust, stuffed with huitlacoche, goat cheese, and porcini mushrooms, and topped with a slightly sweet and creamy sauce, was overcooked to the point of robbing its star poblano pepper of its flavor. Even the accompanying slices of sautéed zucchini seemed uninterested in providing much in the way of taste.
The mid-priced fare does better but, at times, can turn into a cheese-fest. Which may be what Barrio Queen's touristy patrons expect when they think of Mexican food — but we who live in the Valley know better.
A dish called Enchiladas Silvana features a wonderfully subtle cream sauce, but its trio of three cheeses overpowers its flavorful spinach and mushrooms. The same could be said of the two enchilada-style burros I tried: a solid carne asada with tasty caramelized jalapeños and a pork green chile creation, named the Arizona Burrito, whose tender, luscious meat I couldn't get enough of. A lighter hand when it comes to toppings of melted cheese would allow these burros to get more delicious in a hurry.
A nice surprise was the carne asada sandwich Mexicano. Like the burrito, the sandwich came packed with satisfyingly tender and flavorful grilled and marinated skirt steak, but its addition of quesillo cheese was more conservative, letting the meat and its supporting cast of caramelized onions, roasted jalapeños, avocados, and a hint of mayonnaise work together to create a delectable and hearty sandwich on a crunchy-outside-but-soft-inside pressed birote (or bolillo) baguette.
Save for Esparza's stellar signature guacamole, still as knock-me-on-my-ass noteworthy as the first time I had it at Barrio Cafe, and served with hot and thick crunchy chips, the rest of the appetizers, such as vasito-style Mexican fries and avocado topped with spiced shrimp and pico de gallo, are far less exciting and could be skipped in lieu of Barrio Queen's most successful category: tacos.
Recommended on all of my visits, and part of what made Barrio Queen Barrio Queen from the outset, are its street-size tacos. Ranging from the familiar to the exotic, there are 30 varieties to choose from and many of them are excellent. Skip the often too-tough beef selections and opt for other meats with gourmet flair, like al pastor with slices of sweet pineapple, beer-battered fish with a spicy cream salsa, and chicken and chorizo with a green chile mix. There are also worthy vegetarian selections like a simple and satisfying cactus and egg with queso fresco and a roasted pepper mix with sautéed onions and cilantro.
For those looking for an after-dinner sweet treat, there are solid desserts as well. A tres leches cake with berry compote is fresh and flavorful, especially with bites of its whipped cream topping and sprinkling of pecans, but it's hard to pass up the decadent deep-fried and sugary churro with cajeta (caramelized goat's milk) as the go-to meal ender.
Esparza's knack for decorating in a way that's both tasteful and eclectic gives Barrio Queen an upbeat atmosphere with lots of eye candy. Among rich fabrics, tile work, and flooring, there are groups of hanging colored lights, window stencils, Mexican crafts and local artwork, and framed family photos. There's a nice patio and a welcoming dining room with subdued Mexican music playing overhead, but it's the small cantina-like area of the restaurant that I like the best. With its shiny, rust-colored tiles, comfortable booths, overhead cages filled with bottles of tequila, and a black and white Mexican film playing in the background, it's perfect for knocking back a few libations and a mix of tacos with boisterous friends, and it seems most suited to what Barrio Queen was always meant to be.
Unfortunately, the service, although friendly and helpful, can often be frustrating in the area of simple, expected tasks. Dirty dishes were frequently left to sit at my table, water glasses went unfilled, and checks were delivered without asking if there were any other orders.
This year has been a busy one for Esparza. On the heels of opening two new restaurants (and closing one of them), she's celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Barrio Cafe and has recently opened its Sky Harbor Airport location in Terminal 4. With the sudden flood of activity, perhaps the notable chef is simply stretched too thin at the moment to focus on the day-to-day operations of Barrio Queen. But the fact that Esparza had the foresight (and the humility) to quickly close a new restaurant that she didn't feel right about may be an indication that she's also able to recognize that Barrio Queen still needs her help to become the place that she originally envisioned it to be — and that her customers desperately want.