arrio Tequileria proprietor Thomas Placke calls the food at his Northside bar “Tex-Mex plus.” After having a meal there recently, I feel enthusiastic about the “plus” part, which features the house-smoked meats that helped create Barrio’s most delicious taco filling: the beef brisket.
That same meat — Placke says they go through about one freshly smoked brisket a day — enhances their chili, burritos and sandwiches. And the smoker also stays busy to supply hungry diners with smoked chicken wings, pulled pork and bacon.
But don’t get the idea that this new incarnation of Barrio, open since late November, is all about meat. Actually, it’s more of a bar that specializes in a couple dozen tequilas and other liquors, an impressive collection of local and regional beers (more than 50, mostly in bottles or cans), and a short menu of inexpensive food that can be either dinner or a snack. Later hours — the kitchen closes at 10 p.m. on weeknights but not until midnight on Friday and Saturday — have made this a late-night option for nearby restaurant workers after their shifts.
Placke and partner Chuck Eberle purchased the former Barrio in this location at the end of last July. The deal included not only the name but also the taco recipes, equipment and furnishings. They added the smoker and have a range of plans for the large enclosed patio, as well as plans to start serving lunch and weekend brunch by spring.
We popped in on a Friday evening and sat in the front dining room, adjacent to the bar and next to another separate dining room. The bar was humming and almost full, while the tables were sparsely populated. It seemed about what you’d expect for a newly opened place on a fairly quiet block in Northside.
Our server helped us navigate the list of creative margaritas, other cocktails, tequilas and beers. We tried a few tequila cocktails among three of us and the consensus favorite was a mango habañero margarita ($8), described on the menu as reposado tequila with housemade mango-habañero purée, fresh lime juice and cilantro. The drink had a perfect balance of a little sweetness and a little heat, served tall on the rocks with no salt on the rim to burn your lips. The other cocktails were somewhat less successful, with the La Paloma (tequila, lime juice, grapefruit juice; $6) not having enough flavor and the Helltown-Hooch (similar to the La Paloma but with pomegranate juice; $8) just a little too sweet for our tastes.
We appreciated the reasonable drink prices, including beer ($3-$7), and that sense of a good value carried through to the food menu. While enjoying our cocktails, we ordered the dip trio ($8), a basket of warm tortilla chips with small bowls of tomato salsa, queso fundido and guacamole. The portions were large enough for three, at least to hold off our hunger until we decided on what to get next. We liked the guacamole best and two of us thought the queso could have had a little more spice.
Beyond chips and dips, appetizers or snacks included Loaded Papas Fritas (fried potatoes topped with queso, house bacon and jalapeno; $5), grilled Mexican corn ($3) and smoked or fried chicken wings with a selection of sauces ($5.99 for six to $19.49 for 24). Otherwise, the menu sections list burritos, quesadillas, salads, tacos and sandwiches, and a chalkboard added beef-brisket chili.
We were mostly in the mood for tacos, although my husband went for the big De Hongos burrito of spicy portobello mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, rice, beans, lettuce and other ingredients — quite a plateful for $7.
Our friend and I agreed to try a few different tacos, which range from $3 to $4 and can be made with corn or flour tortillas, soft or fried. We both chose soft corn tortillas. She went with a Hongos taco — same basic ingredients as the vegetarian burrito — and a Pescado (pan-seared white fish with Napa cabbage), and I ordered the brisket (beef with horseradish and pickled red onion) and a Camaron (shrimp with radishes and slaw). The flavorful brisket was the clear standout, and the Hongos was pretty good too, if a little spicy and intense. The Pescado suffered from overcooked fish but was well seasoned, and I found the Camaron pretty close to inedible due to massive over-salting.
We shared this criticism with the management and they thanked us for the feedback, promising to alert the kitchen staff.
Within the next month, patrons will be able to roast marshmallows from a s’mores bar by the outdoor fire pits, and by spring the patio will also host yard games, weekend live music and dog-friendly dining. Placke says two new establishments — a sandwich shop and a gaming bar called Arcade Legacy — will open this spring on the block that now also has The Littlefield. He predicts that this corner of Northside, which he calls South Block, will become an important entertainment district for the neighborhood.
Hours: 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Wednesday; 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday.