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.
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.)
Mexican soul food? No way! The cuisine barely squeaks by as gringo-Mex and is anything but soulful in any ethnicity. But don’t get me wrong. A lot of the cooking is simple and tasty, especially the unpretentious appetizers. I wouldn’t come back for them (although that corn would be a temptation) or for anything else, but despite the outrageous claims, the food itself isn’t disgraceful and the atmosphere is sort of hip, if that matters. But for this style of food, I’d actually rather eat fast-Mex at Chipotle for a fraction the price, with brighter flavors, a tastier margarita, and a vastly more individualized choice about what goes on my plate.
Authentic Mexican Home-Cooking Note:
Cacique’s Mexican dairy products and chorizos are widely available here, even in supermarket chains otherwise devoid of Mexican soul food. If you cook, you’re probably using their goodies already. Cacique’s crema mexicana, for example, has saved many a recipe for me, as a credible, gelatin-free substitute for rarely available crème fraîche. (As sour cream, it’s spendy compared to Knudsen’s, although it keeps longer, but when you’re desperate for crème fraîche it’s — priceless.) Cheeses run from lean, crumbly panela (resembling feta) and cotija (like mild Parmesan) to rich melting cheeses like queso Oaxaca — in Mexico nobody uses any yellow cheese, much less pre-shredded Cheddar blends!
Now, famous TV chef Aaron Sanchez is contributing recipes to their website, caciqueusa.com. Along with familiar dishes with “chef” touches, he offers a Langostino with Crema deluxe appetizer that’s fast and easy and sounds scrumptious. (I’m sure you could substitute other shellfish meat like lump crab or — ha-ha! — leftover local lobster.) You’ll find that one by clicking the “Go Autentico” section of website recipes.■
★★ ½ (Good to Very Good)
2706 Fifth Avenue, Banker’s Hill, 619-501-7827; website useless at this writing
HOURS: Lunch Monday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner daily, 5:00–10:00 p.m. Breakfast coming soon.
PRICES: Dinner starters, $3.50–$5; soups and salads, $6–$9; entrées, $12–$17; tacos (three per plate), $13–$15; desserts, $6. Slightly lower prices at lunch.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Health-conscious, somewhat upscale Mexican-style food. Cocktails, Mexican beers, modestly priced wines, Mexican Coca-Cola.
PICK HITS: Guacamole; Guadalajara grilled corn; fried shoestring plantains; steak tacos. Possible good bets: Grilled sirloin; tamal de maize [sic], fish tacos, Brazil bowl with marinated grilled tofu.
NEED TO KNOW: Small space, reserve. Casual dress. Fairly noisy, but good rock playing. Street parking. Vegetarian/vegan-friendly.