Barrio’s Missed Opportunity

A “Pacific Northwesterner’s approach” to Mexican food doesn’t work out so well on Capitol Hill.

Three surprises await the first-time visitor to Barrio. There are the high dungeon doors, of course. You brace yourself to muscle one of them open, only to have it glide without effort, as if it had been salvaged from the magic castle in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Next you pause to admire the grid of fat, even, white candles at the center of the room, which form a glowing wall and then spiral up a series of staircase chandeliers.Finally: the bar. It sprawls, an amoeba in dark wood and tile mosaic, across the petri dish of Barrio's dark, low-ceilinged space. Its curves, flowing in and out around a triple-nucleus of bartenders, are outlined by white overhead lights, which provide one of the few places in Barrio where you won't need your cell phone screen to illuminate the menu. The bar is also where Barrio shines most in a figurative sense. The specialty-cocktails list includes whiskey drinks and the gin-based Corpse Reviver #2, but given Barrio's Mexican theme, tequila is king: Try a shot of small-batch silver tequila served with a couple fingers of spicy tomato sangrita, or the La Paloma, in which lime and grapefruit juices intertwine around the spirit's more floral notes.I did a fair amount of drinking at Barrio's bar over the course of a few visits, and I'd call the Michelada Barrio the drink with greatest breakout potential. Micheladas—beer spiked with lime, Tabasco, and salt—have been on the rise in California for the past few years (drink one on a 90-degree day and you'll get it). The Michelada Barrio takes the premise even further, pouring a nothing of a beer on top of a quarter-cup of red-brown sangrita, then rimming the glass in crunchy fleur de sel and black pepper. As I sipped down, the beer became increasingly tingly and vegetal; when I finished the journey, it was hard not to begin again.Barrio was opened in early December by the Heavy Restaurant Group, Larry and Tabitha Kurofsky's company, well known for the Purple Cafes in Woodinville, Kirkland, and Seattle. Like those cafes, Barrio's looks convey a certain gravitas. The blend of solidity and high design comes partly from the Beauty and the Beast lighting, which hides all signs that the restaurant's on the ground floor of the Trace Lofts condo building, and partly from the high-backed chairs and wood tables, which look like they were carved out of the same giant oaks that the Brobdingnagian carpenters used for the front doors. Barrio is also the loudest restaurant I've eaten at this year. The only dead zones are in back of the bar, at one of the seating pods bracketed in curved steel, and, ironically, at the tables close to the kitchen.According to its Web site, Barrio's mission is to serve food "directly inspired by dishes found throughout Mexico while taking a Pacfic Northwesterner's approach." ("What's that, salmon burritos?" one of my friends asked before we went.) The rhetoric allows the restaurant to upscale the dishes—and prices—while deflecting prejudices that "Mexican food is supposed to be cheap!" and purist complaints about the food not being "authentic" enough. So out of respect for the broadening of the Pacific Northwestern palate and the sophistication of Mexico's culinary legacy, I went to Barrio with an open mind.Unfortunately, most of the food blew.The tacos alone were a travesty. Spend $18 at a taco truck, and you amply feed four adults. Spend $18 at Barrio, and you get exactly four tacos—each the same size as your average street taco, though it costs four times as much, has less on top, and is less skillfully composed. Of the four 4-inch rounds we picked at, the only one I'd order again was a spiced albacore taco with cabbage and lime. The other tacos were marred by the kitchen's candied-meat fixation: caramelized pineapple overwhelming a few slices of pork tenderloin, dried cherries that turned an otherwise delicious pile of shredded duck confit meat saccharine, a papaya salsa sweetening up some chile-rubbed prawns that didn't need it.In fact, the cooks seem to have decided that the Pacific Northwesterner's approach to Mexican food requires sugar. A beer-poached mahi mahi fillet with a papaya salsa tasted as insipidly fruity as every fish-with-fruit-salsa dish served between 1985 and 1995, and the mushy, bland coconut-cilantro rice on the side was no winner, either. A tender chunk of short rib was braised in a thin poblano-chile puree the color of a juicy Shiraz, which had some of the sweetness of a mole but a tenth of its depth or kick. The cooks had dribbled a few tablespoons of coconut milk around a chile relleno—filled with mild cheese and mashed butternut squash, sweet again—as if the coconut contributed some flavor. Actually salting the chile would have been more effective. A ceviche of octopus, shaved into tender coins, with green olives and slivers of cured chorizo, was almost delicious had it not been for the sugary orange juice the dish was tossed with.A few dishes almost came together, such as a trio of beautifully sauteed sea scallops—translucently satiny at the center—on a weirdly sweet squash-yam-and-ancho-chile sauce. The Barrio chopped salad (romaine lettuce, a few miscellaneous vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and cotija cheese) had all the makings of a decent salad, except it was so glooped over in buttermilk dressing that it squished more than crunched.There are a couple of dishes I would order again at the bar to accompany my Micheladas: A bowl of sikil pak, a roasty-toasty puree of pumpkin seeds ground up with tomatoes to brighten the dip and chiles to warm it. We ordered a second bowl of corn chips for scooping up the sikil pak, demolished those, then cleaned up the rest of the dip with our fingers. Crisp-edged, custard-centered masa (cornmeal) cakes came with a concentrated, throbbingly spiced ancho chile salsa. And the lamb chops, rubbed with more anchos, were cooked the perfect rare and served with a light hominy-arugula salad.I'm not faulting a culinary-fusion restaurant for a lack of authenticity. But there's so much complexity to Mexican cuisine—so many ways the flavors weave together, such a delicate balance between herbs, spices, chiles, citrus, and aromatics. Barrio has the opportunity to capture and play with that, but what they keep resorting to are cheap gestures: A few flecks of cilantro in mushy rice. A few pureed chiles instead of a gorgeous blend of chiles, nuts, onions, tomatoes, fruit, and spices. A few tablespoons of meat and fruit on a tortilla with no salsa, no lime, no onions. In short, none of the flash or brilliance of chile-and-lime-spritzed mangoes you eat off the street. All in all, Barrio's food reminded me strongly of the days when we used to toss in some fresh ginger and call it Asian fusion: all surface, no depth.Price Check

Michelada Barrio $6

La Paloma $8

Sikil pak $6

Masa cakes $6

Lamb chops $15

Albacore taco $5

Pork tenderloin taco $

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