If there is one point around which food snobbery coalesces, it is authenticity. If it doesn’t seem like it’s made by your mama from Chihuahua or your nana from Nanjing, some people just don’t want to eat it. And if there is a cuisine that draws maximum ire in this regard, at least locally, it is Mexican. Why? Because “it is so much better in California!” says everyone, always. And we are all either from California or would like to think we are, at least in some deep spiritual fashion. It is better in Texas, too. And Colorado. And guess what, it is better in Mexico, too.
Me, melt some cheese on anything, make sure there’s hot sauce on the table, and on some basic level I’m pretty happy. Would I be more interested in sampling a 50-ingredient mole hand-ground by women with mystical fortune-telling powers in a tiny mountain village? Sure. But I’m not going to kick a crunchy-shelled, ground beef-containing creation out of bed for calling itself a taco.
Fajitas, now that’s another story. I don’t understand fajitas, and I don’t like them. The flour tortilla turns slimy in contact with the filling, with the texture of spent caulk. The dish arrives sizzling needlessly, showmanship for showmanship’s sake. “Be careful. It’s very hot,” your poor server is obliged to warn, but some tender part of you is sure to brush the scalding skillet anyway. Most fajitas taste like a steak-and-cheese from your corner sub shop, minus the roll, which is a much nicer conveyance than a quickly degrading flour tortilla.
But if fajitas must exist in this world (and apparently they must), then the sizzle is it. It’s integral. That’s all there is. So when, at Barrio Cantina, the fajitas arrive silent, room temperature, no tantalizing smell of cooking onions wafting from the dish, we fall silent, too. The bad news has announced itself. Some things, despite the hard work of melted cheese, hot sauce, and an extremely decent, fresh, and zippy pico de gallo, cannot be salvaged.
Tostados topped with tuna ceviche are no better. Tuna needn’t die for this dish. The fish has no taste whatsoever; it’s all texture. Whereas the tiny shrimp in an order of tacos taste quite fishy indeed, something the accompanying avocado and bacon can’t hide. “Tongue n’ Cheek” tacos may be for the more-adventurous diner, but the sharp, bony bits hiding in the brown meat are more than one bargains for. Fish tacos and carnitas tacos are better, crisp where they’re meant to be crisp, tender where they’re meant to be tender. And turkey meatballs pair well with a piquant chili-and-tomato sauce.
Some standards meet standards. Guacamole is fresh, creamy, and simple, what you want guacamole to be. Nachos scratch the itch. Likewise chicken mole, which resembles that prepared by the estimable Doña María. Margaritas taste fine but weak.
There are surprises. A kale salad with chipotle croutons and Caesar dressing bears strong anchovy flavor. The Barrio burger comes topped with cheese, avocado, bacon, and jalapenos, a dynamite combination of tastes and textures. Yes, there is plenty of de-Mexicanized fare at this Mexican restaurant; boneless “Mexican spiced” fried chicken may be a hit with those who always order chicken fingers at Chinese restaurants. And for the indecisive, there is “the complete burrito,” which includes chicken, beef, pulled pork, chorizo, and more. The dish creates nothing out of too many somethings. It’s a boring blur.
As for service, it’s the luck of the draw. Will you encounter the surly bartender who never asks if you’d like a drink even though there is only one other person at the bar? Will you get the attentive, professional waiter who just cannot say “awesome” enough — or the one who takes dishes you’re not done with and leaves dishes you never want to see again? Will the person filling your water linger awkwardly at your elbow, pouring after each sip you take, just exactly to the rim? Will the hostess at the door be the one who welcomes you warmly and commiserates about the terrible weather when you leave? It’s each according to his or her own abilities at Barrio. Better training could level the field.
It’s not too much to ask. Barrio is the successor to Happy’s Bar + Kitchen, from acclaimed restaurateur Michael Schlow. Happy’s opened last May and closed in January. Just a few weeks later, Barrio opened its doors. The speedy turnaround could be attributed to Schlow’s experience with the cuisine — he also operates Tico, which specializes in tequila and has a menu with Mexican influences. But the food at Tico has personality, and great care has clearly been put into the restaurant. It’s hard to say the same about Barrio, which feels like a minimally overseen afterthought, a can’t-lose concept plopped into a can-lose space.
If El Pelon, La Verdad, and, heck, even Chipotle weren’t located in the same neighborhood, this non-strategy would make more sense. On several visits the dining room is largely empty. On game nights, tables of men with Popeye arms drink beer and ignore their quesadillas; all they require is a TV. One blocked-off corner of the restaurant bustles with painting parties (a concept that makes as much sense to me as fajitas) and corporate events.
Schlow has a lot going on. For starters, Tico is expanding, the Sinclair opened this year in Harvard Square, and Radius closes its doors at the end of the month. If Barrio hasn’t been a priority, it’s time to make it one, lest it follow in Happy’s forlorn footsteps.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.