Earlier this year, Jerry Raskin's Needle Doctor made a substantial commitment to carry Cambridge Audio products for me and I made the trek up north to Minneapolis to do some training for them and to take the staff out to dinner afterward. Since the staff at the Needle Doctor are all fun people, I asked one of the salespeople, Rachel, to pick out a "fun" restaurant for dinner that evening. She immediately suggested an Italian place called Bar La Grassa, whose executive chef, Isaac Becker, recently won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Midwest. But when she found out that they couldn't accommodate a group of 10 or more with less than a week's notice, she had to go to plan B. She then suggested a hip Mexican restaurant with ties to Bar La Grassa in downtown Minneapolis by the name of Barrio.
Barrio bills themselves more as a tequila bar offering more than 150 different types of tequila to choose from. Since August of 2008, the little restaurant on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis (see map) has served top shelf tequilas to go along with their variations on eclectic street-style Mexican food. Barrio was founded by partners Tim Rooney and Ryan Burnet, both veterans of the Twin Cities restaurant and hospitality scene. Burnet and his father helped develop the trendy W Minneapolis and Le Meridian Chambers boutique hotels in downtown Minneapolis. The young Burnet is also a realtor with his father's Burnet and Birkeland realty firm and is somewhat famous in the Twin Cities for selling the mansion of the late banker and Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad in just over 30 days.
Rooney is a partner in his own development firm, Metropolitan Development, that also helped develop the W and Le Meridian Chambers hotels in Minneapolis with the Burnets. In addition to the hotels and the Barrio location in downtown Minneapolis, the younger Burnet and Rooney also helped develop Bar La Grassa with Isaac Becker in 2009.
Pictured right - Ryan Burnet (courtesy BizJournals.com)
Barrio in Minneapolis was an immediate hit when it opened in August of 2008 garnering "Best New Restaurant" in the Twin Cities in 2008 as named by Mpls/St. Paul Magazine. Barrio opened a second location in St. Paul in 2009 and opened a third restaurant - Cocina del Barrio - in the upscale and trendy 50th and France neighborhood in Edina in late 2010.
Bill Fairbanks is the executive chef for the Barrio restaurants. A Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Fairbanks has been a chef for over 20 years including a stint at the Stillwater, MN location of the upscale La Belle Vie restaurant. When Rooney and Burnet opened their first Barrio restaurant, they tabbed Fairbanks as their executive chef. Fairbanks immersed himself into the Mexican culture, learning about their cuisine and added a European flair to the Latin food.
Over the past few years, a number of Mexican restaurants have come into existence after the owners garnered a following of people who sought out the food trucks in which their food business started. Barrio did it sort of backward. After opening two restaurants, Barrio established a food truck business that goes around to events in the Twin Cities and offers nearly everything the regular Barrio restaurants have to offer in terms of food. Most of the time, you'll find the Barrio food truck at the corner of 1st Ave. N and 4th St. Monday thru Friday just east of the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis (see map).
I parked in a $5.00 parking lot a block away from Barrio near the corporate headquarters of Target. Although it was a cool and pleasant Spring evening in Minneapolis, the Nicollet Mall was not as thriving as I thought it would be. I walked to Barrio and noticed that no one was seated outside on the patio. Even with as warm as it had been in the Twin Cities in the late Winter and early Spring, it was still too cool to sit outside. I went inside and found Rachel and some of the guys in the back corner of the main floor of the restaurant. Rachel told me she had hoped that we could have been seated upstairs, but that didn't happen. We were a little cramped by the time everyone showed up, but we were fine.
The interior at Barrio in Minneapolis has sort of a gothic feel to it. It was dark inside with subdued lighting from candles and chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. Rather curiously, they did have a large screen projection television beaming picture onto a screen on the wall opposite the bar.
The bar area, itself, was rather interesting with a high mirrored wall full of shelves of bottles of tequila. The real high dollar tequila (including Gran Patron Burdeos Extra Anejo at $133 a shot) sat on the very top shelf. It was an impressive line-up of tequila, to say the least. But I started off with a Surly Furious beer while others started with one of Barrio's exquisite margaritas.
The dinner menu at Barrio is pretty basic, but very interesting. They have a series of small plates that are served sort of "tapas" style for appetizers. These include red snapper ceviche with avocados, radishes and oranges; a small plate of pork belly served with a red mole sauce, watercress and apricots; and grilled meatballs with a chile de arbol salsa, pickled carrots and a cheese queso sauce. They had made-to-order guacamole served with homemade corn chips. We ordered three of those to start out.
The guacamole was outstanding, by the way. It was served in a stone bowl with bits of radish and cilantro mixed in. It was extremely fresh. Kenny from the Needle Doctor said that it was very had to get fresh avocados in Minnesota. "We just don't have avocado farms in Minnesota," he half-jokingly said. We made quick work of the guacamole, which was also served with a small portion of a spicy salsa mix.
Most of the Mexican fare at Barrio consists of interesting tacos and enchiladas. While they do have entrees such as a seared ahi tuna with a tomatillo-avocado salsa, or a pan-roasted Amish chicken chimichurri served with a spicy black bean and mango salad, the bulk of the main food items are the tacos and enchiladas.
They had a Taco Lengua - beef tongue - on the menu, along with a pork belly taco with a habenaro salsa and pickled onions. Those were two that I wasn't willing to try. I did find a seared ahi tuna taco served with grilled onions, avocado and an arbol-tomatillo sauce. They had a red chile chorizo enchilada that was served with a fried egg. Oooooo.... That sounded real good. There was a pork carnitas taco, a "gringo" taco with ground beef, lettuce and cheese, a spicy shrimp taco with tomato-mint pico de gallo mixed in, and a soft-shell crab taco with watermelon-tomatillo, avocado and watercress. Mmmmm....
I had finished my Surly beer and decided to get a margarita. One of the guys had ordered the Trinity - a silver label tequila with Cointreau and a lime sour mixer. He said it was pretty good. I ordered one of those and Kenny, who was seated across from me, ordered the Macho Camacho - a blood orange margarita made with anejo tequila and a splash of Cava, a Spanish wine. Wedges of orange and lime were included. He said it was pretty damn good. I made short work of my Trinity margarita and had our waitress, a lovely young Asian woman by the name of Chi - who took great care of us all night long - get me a Macho Camacho for my second margarita. Kenny was right - it was good, and very interesting.
We began to order up our food and many in the group began to order up tacos and enchiladas, served individually on a plate. A couple guys got entrees including the Creekstone Farms natural ribeye served with chile-lime tequila butter and fried yucca. For tacos, I had to go with the ahi tuna taco and the red chile chorizo enchilada right off the bat. I also decided to try one of the Creekstone Farms natural skirt steak tacos with poblano chile strips (rajas in Spanish), as well as a pork carnitas taco. I came damn close to ordering a soft shell crab taco instead of the carnitas taco, but was happy with my choice.
After a few moments, waitresses helping Chi that evening were bringing out individual plates of tacos. The first round to the table where for the people who ordered the skirt steak tacos, the pork belly tacos and the carnitas tacos. The skirt steak taco was inside a deep fried shell that was light and flaky. The carnitas were on double small flour tacos (below left). A wedge of lime was included with both plates. The skirt steak was moist, juicy and flavorful. The roasted poblano pepper strips had a nice smoky taste to them and went well with the beef. The carnitas were equally as good, but a little more well-done than the skirt steak. A serrano chile salsa was served on top of the pork and it helped with the taste.
The food kept coming out. It was coming in waves of individual plates. Beef tongue tacos, chorizo enchiladas, shrimp tacos - each came out individually as soon as the kitchen finished them. My second round consisted of my chorizo enchilada and the ahi tuna taco (above right). Actually, the portions were pretty good sized and I was thinking I may have trouble finishing what I had in front of me. But at the first bite of the ahi tuna taco, I knew I would have make short work of this thing. The avocado with the arbol-tomatillo salsa just helped the already wonderful taste of the seared ahi tuna.
I was a little leery of the chorizo enchilada. I had a bad experience a number of years ago with chorizo - food poisoning, I'm guessing - and I've pretty much stayed away from chorizo ever since. But this chorizo wasn't greasy in the least and had a great flavor. The fried egg went absolutely perfect with the chorizo in the enchilada. I was getting full, but the taste sensation of the chorizo and egg was stupendous. It was just outstanding.
After dinner, a handful of us ordered a shot of tequila - the El Jimador anejo that was moderately priced at $8 bucks a shot. It was smooth and was a nice nightcap. But it was also the last thing I needed to drink that evening.
Barrio was definitely an experience. Everyone raved about their food and we all had a great time - two things that I like to have when I go out to a restaurant with a group of people. It was a great experience and one that I'd like to enjoy some time down the line. Actually, I've been wondering about those soft shell crab tacos ever since that night at Barrio.