2706 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
I headed for Barrio Star with fear in my heart. Fear, and numerous variations of annoyance. Let’s start with the annoyances and touch on the fear later.
Barrio Star is a new restaurant in Banker’s Hill owned by Isabel Cruz of Pacific Beach’s fusiony-healthy Isabel’s Cantina, and many more. (She was a cofounder with Deborah Helm of the Mission Cafés and now owns several restaurants in Oregon.) Her chef here is Todd Camburn, a young graduate of the San Diego Culinary Academy. Per a press release, the restaurant promises lighter, healthier, authentic Mexican food — and at the top of the menu, it also boasts “Mexican Soul Food.” All of which seems highly oxymoronic.
You want real Mexican “soul food”? It doesn’t include Barrio Star’s Brandt sirloin or Jidori chicken. To gauge the chalk-on-blackboard insensitivity of the “soul food” claim, consider that, in the U.S., the term refers to the brilliant culinary inventions that African-Americans created from the most humble foodstuffs, starting during slavery and continuing through over a century of near slavery under Jim Crow. Imagine Alice Waters or Ruth Reichl opening a soul-food restaurant — well, lah-di-dah!
In near-feudal Mexico, similar soul-food conditions apply. The gardeners landscaping your pretty resort in Playa del Carmen or Ixtapa earn, for a full day’s labor, less than you spent for your breakfast in the hotel dining room. So what those “soulful” peasants eat consists mainly of rice, beans, tortillas, lard, chili peppers, fast-growing greens like verdolagas (purslane) and amaranth, and the occasional fried-egg garnish on the rice. Plus, sometimes, a stringy old backyard chicken who’s stopped laying. On feast days, there may be guisados (stews) made of cheap braising cuts, with a lot of good gravy for the family’s rice but not a lot of meat — and in farm communities, maybe a communal barbecue of a pig or goat. “Light” but “authentic”? Oh, puh-leeze! Starches, pulses (peas, beans, lentils), and cheap fat are the worldwide authentic mainstays for staying alive long enough to work your tail off again tomorrow. Lean Cuisine it ain’t, except if you have to live on it full-time. Want real Mexican soul food? Try Super Cocina in City Heights, where individual Mexican housewives offer up a variety of wonderful regional guisados (made with more meat than at home).
Barrio Star’s “healthier” Mexican fare features humanely raised meats, etc. Let me mention one word: Chipotle, the amazingly idealistic fast-food chain, where the meats (mainly from Niman) are also humanely raised, vegetables are locally sourced and organic whenever possible, prices are low, and plates are as healthy as you want them, because they’re made to your order. (You can do a carne asada bowl that’s as healthy as its Thai steak salad counterpart.) And for years, Ranchos Cocina in North Park and Ocean Beach has served healthy Mexican food for lower prices than Barrio Star, without getting all self-congratulatory about it. So — is Barrio Star good enough to justify its higher prices and faintly sanctimonious attitude?
Annoyance numero tres: After four months in business, Barrio Star’s website not only doesn’t have a menu, it doesn’t even include a phone number for reservations or hours of service! What’s up with that? Look, eaters need website menus to decide if they can handle the prices and to make preliminary choices on which dishes to try. With all the restaurants under owner Isabel Cruz’s belt, surely she can afford to have her webmaster scan in the restaurant menu for an update.
Worst annoyance, the one I must struggle against to write a fair review: chef-owner Isabel Cruz herself. (If you Google her, don’t make the mistake of entering Isabella for her first name: You’ll get a porn star.) The restaurant’s website seems to embody a basic hubris — that you don’t need to know anything, you can just run right out to Food Girl’s new restaurant! Yes, Cruz has dubbed herself Food Girl. Sort of like Rima the Bird Girl in Green Mansions. (Remember that from childhood?) She’s the one and only “girl” whose food talks to her and vice versa. (Can I name myself Food Crone?) Cruz wrote a cookbook a few years ago, mainly a compendium of shortcuts to make a few easy glazes and sauces (e.g., “Soy Joy”) that can cover just about anything, like too much of the food at Isabel’s Cantina.
As for fear and trepidation: Yelp (which I needed to get Barrio Star’s damned phone number) is alight with flames, the pros burning the cons. The restaurant is highly controversial. Which means, if I don’t love it, its friends and fans and relatives are probably gonna incinerate me in email hell.
So — off to Barrio Star with hope and cynicism, trying to stand up straight and true and impartial and treat Food Girl fairly. Mark and Ben had just had a totally fraught day with a family emergency, and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. In fact, I’d lost my appetite for about ten days, which is a serious problem in this job. We were all counting on Barrio Star to make our day.
The restaurant is cheerfully decorated, including one gorgeous large table of pale, rough-hewn wood (with matching bar chairs) in the dining room. The chairs are orange, the floors are bare. We were seated in a second room behind it, next to the kitchen, with reddish walls and Tiffany-style hanging lights. It was a hot night, so we bypassed the plush raised booth in an alcove in favor of a four-top next to an open window. It was quieter than the main dining room, all the better to appreciate the tasty soundtrack of solid ’60s rock (no bubblegum, lotsa soulful girl groups).
Our first courses swept the bad day clean away, with appetizers that restored even my comatose appetite. The selection is brief, only four dishes. The one we skipped featured a sliced cucumber mini-salad — I couldn’t bring myself to spend $3.50 on a snack that’s typically offered free or cheap in so many Asian restaurants. It ought to be a buck and a half, like sunomono at sushi bars.