Barrio: tequila, tacos and Tim McKee

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I finally had a chance to dine at Barrio Tequila Bar, the new Mexican cantina on the Nicollet Mall, from Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, the guys who created La Belle Vie, Solera, and Smalley’s Caribbean Barbecue. (On my first attempt, I ran into a half-hour wait and went elsewhere.) I went with some trepidation, because I have been underwhelmed by previous efforts to repackage south-of-the-border cooking for the smart set (e.g., Masa, which one reader nailed as “Mexican food for Lutherans”), but I came away impressed. Barrio is darker and funkier, and more fun, and maybe most importantly, they’ve got the food right. (And to be fair to Masa, the food there seemed to have gotten better, the last time I went.)

The menu is organized around tapa-style small plates ($7.50), and an assortment of tacos and enchiladas ($3.50-$4), plus a few large plates, such as roasted chicken with apricot-pine nut mole ($16) or Oaxaca style baby back ribs with fried plantains ($16). My friends and I stuck to the smaller plates, and enjoyed nearly everything we sampled.

I couldn’t help make a comparison to the deli counter at Marissa’s on Eat Street, which serves a lot of the same items. Barrio stacks up pretty well – portions are more petite, and prices are higher (of course), but Barrio’s cooks get the flavors right. Among my favorites: the barbecue pork sopes, chunks of roast pork in masa cups; the red chile enchilada with chorizo and fried egg ($3.50), and the made-to-order guacamole.

Barrio also has the most impressive collection of tequilas I have seen anywhere – over 100, ranging from cheapies like Jose Cuervo Especial ($4) to Patrón Burdeos ($95 a shot), plus some interesting drinks, like a blackberry Mojito ($9) and a passionfruit margarita ($10). They’ve got two happy hours nightly, Monday to Friday: 4-6 p.m., and 10 p.m. to midnight – two bucks off on tap beers and rail drinks, plus nightly drink specials. As for ambience, there’s an elaborate candelabra on the bar, and old Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns on the big screen, with Spanish subtitles.

Barrio Tequila Bar, 925 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-333-9953.

And now I am headed for the airport – next stop, Singapore…

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