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The guacamole was excellent, hand-mashed, and sparked with lime juice and chopped onions. We wiped that plate clean. The tortilla chips, however, were heavy and stale-tasting. “All tortillas are house-made from freshly ground corn,” the menu claims, but in the chips all the freshness was gone. I guess that rules out the tortilla soup as a good order, or chilaquiles at future breakfasts. A ramekin of red salsa served alongside was vivid and very spicy. Apparently, if you don’t want the guac, you have to pay for chips and dip. That seems to be the latest signifier of “uppity” among ambitious Mexican restaurants (e.g., El Vitral, reviewed last fall), and it’s a lousy idea. Some diners are going to need that table sauce to spice up their dishes (especially here, where the food is 99.9 percent bland, and there are no bottled hot sauces on the table). As for chips, made from yesterday’s tortillas, they’re normally fried, but here I’d bet anything that they’re oven-baked with a spray of canola oil — labor-saving, cheaper, as well as “healthy,” but tasting like crisp cardboard.

Guadalajara Grilled Corn is the restaurant’s masterpiece. (It’s served at lunchtime, too, a tempting possibility for anyone working in the area.) The two ears, with some of their kernels deliciously charred on the grill, are sprinkled with mild, fluffy cotija cheese and sit atop a shallow lake of subtly spicy melted butter spiked with jalapeños and perhaps a touch of cumin.

Shoestring-fried plantains were tender-crisp and slightly sweet, with an alluring chipotle cream dip — luxurious, with a little nip (along with more house salsa). I’m not sure how Mexican this dish is. I never encountered it there but instead associate it with Puerto Rico (Cruz’s parental homeland) and other Spanish Caribbean islands, Central America, and northern South America. But hey, it tasted fine.

For our first round, Ben had the Michelada (sort of a beer-based, spicy Bloody Mary), Mark had a dark beer, and I tried the Barrio Margarita, made with agave instead of sugar syrup. It was no great thrill (too sweet and very weak), so I abandoned it halfway for a Pom-Rita, which I liked for its sweet-tart balance. (Some of the cocktails include prickly pear syrup, but I didn’t notice a margarita variant with it, a pity.) Ben ventured on the Chile Rita (with jalapeño and oregano), an extremely picante tipple, really going too far for pleasure. I also ordered a Mexican Coke, which tastes the way real Coke used to taste because it’s made with sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup — but our flustered-seeming waitress never got around to delivering it.

As we faced the entrées, I’d gotten my eating-groove back, but the best dishes were behind us. A tamal de pollo proved flawless on the tamal, terrible on the pollo. The masa was light, puffy, spongy. The chicken was dry and shreddy. Don’t ever think this is a necessary side effect of cooking tamales: You get overcooked chicken when you start with overcooked chicken. (This doesn’t speak well for the roast Jidori chicken entrée, rubbed with spices and lime juice, something like El Pollo Loco’s — where the chicken doesn’t have a pedigree but is rarely overcooked. Some early reviewers and bloggers have reported excellent versions of the roast chicken here; others have complained of dryness. Ya pays yer money, ya don’t gets yer choice.) The tamale accompaniments — chipotle corn salad, black beans, and jasmine rice — were pleasant enough. A large, tough leaf of steamed kale was once bitten, immediately leftover. My do-over here would be to order the misspelled tamal de maize (it’s maíz, no e at the end) filled with corn and roasted tomatillos. There’s enough fresh corn on this menu to seem like a culinary crutch (the role “Soy Joy” and other glazes play at Isabel’s Cantina), but it’s all good corn.

The Brazil Bowl entrée isn’t Mexican, of course, nor all that Brazilian either, despite coconut rice, coconut chili sauce, mango chunks, and a few more leaves of chewy kale (often used in Brazil for couvé de minas gerais, the lightly sautéed strong greens that accompany the national dish of feijoada completa). You can get your bowl with grilled chicken, carnitas, or grilled tofu. We chose carnitas — a pile of soggy but dry shreds of pork that had been braised in beer. Again, the villain might have been “healthiness.” The carnitas are described as oven-baked, which probably translates to “never fried, certainly not in evil pork fat!” So they’re totally greaseless — but they’re a poor excuse for carnitas. Like so much health food, they’re more virtuous than good. “I love carnitas when they’re really crisp on the surface and just melt inside,” said Ben, sighing. The bowl itself, minus meat, might work better with the grilled tofu. It’s got that health-food vibe, anyway.

Finally, the tacos, which despite a recent slight price reduction are still expensive ($13–$15), even though you get three on a plate, plus beans on the side. We wished in vain for a combo platter, so we could taste several versions (including the fish, which looked interesting), and evidently we weren’t the first customers to ask for that. The answer was a flat “No — too difficult for the kitchen staff.”

Our steak tacos, made with marinated Brandt Beef sirloin, were served with a touch of avocado purée and some salsa fresca, rendered here as chopped fresh tomatoes and not much more. The beef slices were charred to well-done, but the marinade lent some residual flavor. The medium-sized tortillas (larger and firmer than in local street tacos) were thick, halfway to gorditas, with no distinct flavor of corn, whether fresh or dried. Rather dry and clumsy, they didn’t fold easily — we ate our tacos with forks. It’s not because the tortillas lacked lard. Some very good local-made tortillas are lard-free, but they’re typically thinner, more pliable, more flavorful. The tacos did come with terrific black beans, gooey with melted cheese and almost smoky-tasting. (The menu doesn’t offer them as a side dish, unfortunately. All it offers is “organic steamed greens,” meaning, kale, or whatever other dreary green is the veggie-du-jour.)

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Comments

breezy Aug. 7, 2010 @ 10:06 p.m.

Namoi, First and foremost, I’ll say I have read your columns every week, for the last five years or so. I moved away from SD in the winter of 08’ and still continue to follow your culinary adventures from Orange County. I really enjoyed your review of Barrio Star and felt you hit it spot on. I used to work for the Food Girl at her restaurant Cantina Panaderia (Be Curious???), and her food has not changed once since prior to that establishment's opening and now at Barrio Star. Her claim of being a“food girl” and perpleing take on soul-foul/ healthy Mexican food lacks in both areas of flavorful and body-thriving . If you are going to call yourself a semi-fine dining establishment and charge double digits for three tacos then you must hit it out of the park…Nonetheless, I appreciate the research you do prior to your visits. Isabella is narcissistic in her approach to managing, operating, and running a restaurant and I found her food of rice and beans to be masked with chilies, peppers, and the occasional lime-honey glaze.

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octo Aug. 29, 2010 @ 9:58 p.m.

Is Ms. Wise reviewing Barrio Star or Isabel Cruz? Is this a review of a dining establishment or the chef's personal being? She appears to have a disdain for Ms. Cruz that borders on the obsessive. She also appears to think she owns the patent on the meaning of soul. Anyone so jaded and vindictive should abstain from lecturing others on the meaning of soul, let alone soul food. I'm surprised Ms. Wise is able to taste anything over all the bitterness on her tongue.

This review is also very poorly written and full of misinformation and contradiction in regard to the food offered at Barrio Star and Ms. Cruz herself.

Finally, one is left to wonder if Ms. Wise is a fan of Isabella Cruz as it is glaringly obvious that she is so familiar and intimate with Chef Isabel that there is no way she could enter the wrong name into Google.

This is not a food review. It's the spleen venting of a nasty someone who is obviously unreasonably jealous of the chef - the true hubris is evident as being possessed by Ms. Wise, a woman who managed only to betray her insecurity and weak ego by printing a poor and slanted review that obviously comes from a woman who can't separate her personal life from her professional perspective.

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rpyrke Jan. 18, 2011 @ 11:04 p.m.

I'll agree with "breezy"! I tried this for restaurant week under pressure from my girlfriend. I think that Naomi was far too kind in her review. I would advise that you steer clear of this restaurant. The food lacked flavor ( the shrimp were already dead they didn't have to kill them again). The poorest example of Mexican inspired that cuisine I have ever experienced. This is the first time I have ever had to send a cocktail back because it was undrinkable!!

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