Saturday, March 20, 2010

What! No Chimichangas!?

This can’t be a real Mexican restaurant!

A friend from Philadelphia was visiting us in Phoenix for the day and the request was for Southwest food of the non-spicy variety. A Google search led us to The Barrio Café, a bastion of gourmet Mexican style food, first for an exploratory visit and the second with our friend.

Established in 2002 by partners Wendy Gruber and Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, The Barrio was a dream come true for the duo -- a little neighborhood eatery providing authentic southern Mexico cuisine along with the chef's original creations in an unpretentious atmosphere. Mission accomplished! The Barrio Cafe has been hailed as one of the hottest and most original restaurants to hit Phoenix.

Chef Esparza was raised in a traditional Mexican family. During her childhood, Silvana's parents owned and operated the first and only Mexican bakery in Merced, CA. This bakery was truly a family affair, for it was here that chef Silvana found her love and passion for the kitchen and 'back of the house,' thus building a strong foundation for her future as a chef. Cooking with her grandmother (also named Silvana) and her mother Leonor is where she learned that love is the key ingredient to making stellar Mexican cuisine. Chef Esparza explains: "I have always felt my family's history runs through my veins. I have followed my heart and do what I love - how lucky can I get!"

Fulfilling a lifetime goal, in 2000 and 2001, Silvana embarked on an adventure of discovery. She traveled throughout Mexico's back roads and small villages, learning more about her Mexican heritage, customs, people, and most of all, the food. Through her culinary experiences as a child and during her travels, chef Esparza developed her own style of Mexican cuisine.

Chef Esparza has been nominated for the 2010 James Beard Award.

The Barrio Café is a small and tasteful restaurant. The white walls are accented with black and white photos of young boxers. Unusual for a Mexican restaurant, the tables are covered with white linens and diners are provided with cloth napkins. Service is flawless, and Richard, our server on both occasions, was friendly without being presumptuous.

For those of a less adventurous bent, the menu does offer some familiar items – although with a creative twist. There are Tacos de Cochinita Pibil (Mayan-style, slow roasted pork tacos with salsa yucateca with a hint of sour orange and queso fresco); Tacos de Camaron with tequila sautéed shrimp, cabbage, and rosarto beach sauce; Tacos de Carne Asada with grilled tenderloin strip tacos with cabbage, queso fresco, salsa yucateca, and avocado; and Tacos de Pescado or halibut fish tacos with cabbage and avocado with baja sauce. There is a quesadilla filled with roasted poblano peppers and a blend of cabra, havarti, and Oaxaca queso. The Chile Relleno is a poblano pepper stuffed with shrimp and scallops and topped with a fontina and Oaxaca queso.

Less familiar were: the Cochinita Pibil, a twelve-hour slow roasted pork with achiote rojo and sour orange with salsa Yucateca; Chiles en Nogada, a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with chicken, onions, garlic, pecans, apples, pears, and apricots finished with almond sauce and pomegranates; or the Pato en tamarindo, a seared breast of duck in a sweet and sour tamarind and chipotle pepper sauce.

Our lunch started with a complimentary serving of tapenade with a basket of fresh bread. The tapenade contained finely minced black and green olives, roasted red peppers, garlic, and capers all tossed in a light olive oil dressing. Even Chuck, no olive lover, enjoyed this starter.

Both Chuck and I looked to the four enchilada options in making our choices. Mine was the Enchiladas de Mole; white corn tortillas stuffed with queso fresco, grilled chicken slices, and topped with the Oaxacan black mole. (My choice over the red mole.) The signature ingredient in black mole is semi-sweet or unsweetened chocolate combined with chilies and an extensive list of other ingredients. My serving contained six three-inch diameter soft corn tortillas filled with a generous portion of grilled chicken. The mole was outrageous. It was mildly spicy but not overpowering, and the seasonings served to temper the intense chocolate flavor. The mole was so good that I tried to discretely scrape every morsel from my plate but finally resorted to wiping the plate clean with the remaining slice of bread.

Chuck’s choice, the Enchiladas Suizas, were the same soft corn tortillas filled with grilled chicken and topped with a cheese and cream tomatillo sauce. Chuck described this dish as “heavenly.” While it was mildly seasoned it carried lots of flavor all of which blended seamlessly. The grilled flavor of the chicken came through more here than with the more intense mole. Both of our plates came with a sautéed tomato and zucchini mix that was a welcome change from the ubiquitous beans and rice that you find in too many Mexican restaurants.

If you thought we wouldn’t have room for dessert, you’d be wrong. From the short (four selections) dessert list, we chose the Churros Rellenos de Cajeta de Cabra or fritters stuffed with goat’s milk caramel drizzled with a caramel sauce and served with vanilla bean ice cream. This dessert was named one of Phoenix’s top twenty-five restaurant dishes – not just desserts – all dishes. These were simultaneously light and rich. The fritters had a crisp exterior and when bitten into, a flood of the goat’s milk caramel poured into your mouth. Wonderful.

We left more than satisfied and knew we had found the restaurant to which to take our friend. More on that meal tomorrow (or the next day).

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