“Too much of everything” appears to be the culinary theme at Barrio Urbano, Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s diner at midtown’s food court The Yard.
Originally opened last fall as a Mexican breakfast place, this is the third of five restaurants to carry the acclaimed restaurateur’s Barrio brand launched from her popular and longstanding Barrio Café and following Scottsdale’s Barrio Queen, which she left late last year, and a pair of Sky Harbor locations. The breakfast concept has been expanded to include lunch and dinner menus, and while Esparza and staff have utilized the cozy space well, the entrées and appetizers cranked out of their tiny kitchen are often piled with too many competing flavors.
During a recent dinnertime visit, my companion and I were handed five separate menus: two different beverage menus, another devoted to tacos, a dinner menu, and a printed list of specials. A sixth menu was provided as well, once our server realized we’d been given the recently retired dinner menu instead of the new one.
Appetizers tip diners off to the more-is-more approach to pretty much everything served here. Quesadilla de jaiba stacked bits of good crab, tangy goat cheese, spicy pico de gallo, and a slice of avocado atop a fresh corn tortilla, but I couldn’t find a single one of these flavors in any one bite. The overwhelming taste was of a generic, pico-fueled spiciness.
Mula de asada is similarly overwhelmed with flavors: corn tortillas filled with Oaxaca cheese, bits of grilled steak, black beans, and avocado are seasoned with onion, cilantro, and jojoque crema atop grilled tomatillo salsa verde. The ensalada de elote asado was a nice presentation of lightly dressed spinach tossed with big discs of radish, chunks of red onion, and roasted corn. Removing the red onion allowed me to find and enjoy the other flavors here.
Among the few simple entrée choices is the cochinita pibil, which marries Chef Esparza’s marinated pork with chopped red onion and pico de gallo. The pork was tender and mild, and a side of black beans had a nice, smoky flavor. Served with a generous stack of foil-wrapped tortillas, this dish allowed me to assemble my own mini-tacos and to mitigate the crush of too many ingredients.
Enchiladas Urbanas was another mild dish. Three cheeses — Oaxaca, Monterey, and chevre — were piled into crepe-like corn tortillas with sautéed spinach and dressed with a snappy crema sauce and toasted piñons. Without a lot of other ingredients to obscure them, the distinctive flavors of the cheeses and spinach shone. The excess in this dish is forgivable: There are four oversize enchiladas here, making this a good dish for sharing.
The Arizona burrito is also a whopper and turns the tables on Barrio’s too-much-is-more idea with simple, vibrant flavors that didn’t cancel out one another. Chile verde pork and salsa verde are wrapped with queso gratinado in a fluffy tortilla seasoned with a simple fistful of cilantro.
On a second dinner visit, we ordered from the taco menu, an impressive list of 21 mini corn-tortilla-wrapped combinations. Best bets included the snappy flavors of the camarón sauté, a mix of cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado, and sautéed shrimp topped with a creamy aioli. The Barrio pollo is a subtler presentation of chopped chicken tossed with cilantro, tasty even without the cream sauce, promised on the menu but absent from my order. The Mexicali was a real winner, with crusty bits of carne asada and creamy avocado melted over with Oaxaca cheese.
An order of menudo was especially disappointing: so salty that it was inedible. Three or four bites revealed flavors of chile, garlic, and cilantro, but the overpowering brininess turned one of my favorite foods into a salt lick. On a later visit, the suadero burrito, a brisket and black bean concoction, also was oversalted.
Of Urbano’s several desserts, both of those I tried were housemade. The tres leches sundae is less about three milks than it is a vaguely interesting strawberry shortcake of dry cake and sliced strawberries dressed with a tres leches sauce. Better was the churro, deep-fried crisp and cinnamon-rich, filled with caramel and served with vanilla ice cream.
Eager to hunt down Esparza’s talent for creating simpler fare — which I’ve enjoyed for years at her original restaurant — I ate breakfast at Barrio and ordered the Gringo, a straightforward and perfectly prepared bacon-and-eggs platter in which nothing was buried under piles of anything else. This was served with papas and toast made from bolillo, a savory Mexican bread. Steak and eggs was also no-nonsense, the skirt steak cooked perfectly medium rare, as ordered, and nicely underseasoned; the eggs scrambled fluffy and tight.
Service at Urbano was typically friendly but tentative, and always very slow. With only four other tables on a Friday night, why did it take 40 minutes for our appetizers to appear? Why did our entrées arrive mere minutes later, before we’d finished our appetizers? And why did the waitress return to us twice to confirm a relatively simple burrito order?
The bigger question is whether it’s necessary, with Esparza’s special culinary skills, to overwhelm so many of her dishes with too much of a good thing.
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5632 North Seventh Street
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Quesadilla de jaiba $10
Enchiladas Urbanas $18
Suadero burrito $12