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

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Editor's Note: The final post in our "Eating 16th Street" series about Barrio Cafe has drawn quite a bit of criticism, so when Sharon Salomon -- a Phoenix-based food writer, dietitican, investor in Barrio Cafe and one of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's culinary school instructors -- asked to write a guest post in response, we said yes.

See also: Barrio Cafe: Good -- But Glorified -- Mexican Food Eating 16th Street archives Tastemaker 73: Sharon Salomon

The Chow Bella post about Barrio Café written by Alex Rodriguez earlier this week irritated me. In fact, it really pissed me off.

Ms. Rodriguez is of course entitled to her opinion but it was the tone of her writing and what she chose to attack that left me livid.

We food writers often try to define what is meant by authenticity in ethnic cuisines. Maybe way back when cultural groups were more isolated and before there were hundreds of food magazines, thousands of cookbooks, celebrity chefs on television and before international travel was common, authentic recipes existed. But that was then. Nowadays the food world is a melting pot and no place is that more evident than in the United States.

I've never had borscht in Moscow as Ms. Rodriguez has but I grew up eating the borscht prepared by my Polish Russian grandmother. I'm not sure if my grandmother's borscht was what Ms. Rodriguez would consider authentic, traditional, genuine or bona fide. But it was borscht cooked by a Polish Russian woman who learned it from her Polish mother who probably learned it from her mother. I would be shocked if it were the same borscht that Rodriguez tasted in Russia in the 21st Century. So whose is more authentic?

Let's talk about Alex's Barrio Café post. Of course, as kids always say, "this is a free country" and she is entitled to her opinion (even if every other critic who has ever eaten at Barrio disagrees with her).

Let's talk about whether or not a torta served with a side salad is authentic Mexican cuisine or not.

Let's see. A Mexican American chef conceived the dish. The dish was prepared by a Mexican chef using ingredients typical to Mexico although they may have been grown in the United States (authenticity does have limitations). What seems to have bothered Ms. Rodriguez was the side salad.

Silvana, who by the way was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame several years ago as well as having been nominated twice by that organization that Alex doesn't like, the James Beard Foundation (and I truly do not understand what that had to do with what she was writing about but she chose nonetheless to mention it), is a classically trained chef in addition to having learned to cook in her Mexican mother's kitchen. Most certainly Silvana is influenced both by her ethnic heritage and by her classical training. Classically trained chefs are taught to "balance flavors". Someone with a fine tuned palate will be able to parse the ingredients in a dish but to most of us food tastes good because we can't deconstruct the dish. By adding an acidic salad dressing to the otherwise somewhat fatty torta, Silvana is balancing the flavors. There are of course many ways she could have balanced the flavors but chefs always add their own personal touches and the balsamic dressing is Silvana's.

Is Mexican food "rustic" cuisine as Alex describes it? Hmmmm. My experience with authentic Mexican food is apparently different from hers. Fifty years ago I lived in Mexico City with a Mexican family while attending the University of Mexico. Our cook, because in those days everyone had a cook, was a young woman from rural Mexico who could neither read nor write. She was someone who had never seen television until she came to work at the house. She'd never read a cookbook and most certainly never had any formal culinary training. I don't recall her food being "rustic", though. In fact, her moles were extraordinarily complex. I've never had tortillas like the ones she prepared daily for the family. I begged every day for her thick sweet flan. Every meal she prepared for us was a memorable gem of intricate flavors. I would never describe her food as rustic, though.

Yes, Alex, I know what you're thinking. She was cooking for upper class people. So maybe when she was in the privacy of her own home, her cooking was less refined. But does that mean that the food she prepared for us was not authentically Mexican?

I take particular umbrage when a writer compares one restaurant to another in a review. I love La Condesa. Eat there all the time. But you cannot compare the two restaurants.

Barrio Café is a white tablecloth upscale restaurant. It's also a neighborhood joint for those of us who live close by but for most people, Barrio is a place to go for a special meal. No beans. No rice. No chimichangas. No chips. No comparison to anything in the Valley. In fact, it's the uniqueness of Barrio that has helped to make it popular. Barrio brought many "firsts" to the Valley.

Alex, since you brought La Condesa into the discussion, I have to ask if you consider their strawberry salsa (which is my favorite) to be authentic. Is it typically traditional to add fruits and nuts to horchata? I'm not sure. Is it? It should be if it's not!

So, yes, Alex ruffled my feathers. I allow that she can have an opinion and certainly has the right to share that opinion. She lost credibility with me when she sneered at the James Beard Foundation. To most of us in the food world, it's an honor to be nominated. I believe Ms. Rodriguez made an error in judgment and left me wondering about her motives. I felt like she was saying, "Go ahead, Chef. Show me what you got! I dare you."

In any case, I propose that it's time to stop talking about authentic or traditional or genuine ethnic food in this age of kimchee tacos and bacon wrapped matzoh balls. And that's all I really wanted to say.

Sharon Salomon was awarded certificates from La Varenne Cooking School and Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. She is a former instructor at Scottsdale Culinary Institute and a food and nutrition writer. Salomon is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, Association of Healthcare Journalists, International Association of Culinary Professionals and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The rest of Eating 16th Street: 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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