Prime dinner time on Sunday in a college town promises a comfortably spacious dining experience at one of the just-off-campus hot spots for food and drink. Bright lights and grayscale skeletons with personalities perfect for a mariachi band adorn the tasteful and busy walls of Barrio, and creative chandeliers made of liquor bottles dangle from the high ceilings.
While the chain dabbles in restaurant specials now and then, Barrio is known for its endless taco combinations and dozens of tequilas and whiskies. When you sit down, you’re provided with paper menus of items to make tacos you’ve only dreamt about. Choose how many tacos you want, what kind of shells, proteins, salsas, sides and more. If you’re really intimidated by the options, Barrio also has a menu of chef-selected tacos.
In addition to catering to those who like to take control, as well as those unconfident in their culinary skills, Barrio knows its market. For just $4, you might not expect a mountain of tender short rib embraced in the hug of a “bombshell”—a pillowy flour tortilla surrounding a crunchy corn hard shell, separated only by dreamy queso and meaty bacon bits.
Two or three tacos, regularly priced at $3 each, are enough to fill even the hungriest college students, and paired with unlimited chips and salsa, you can have a great time at Barrio without breaking the bank.
I knew I wanted to indulge in my first taco; I went all out with braised, shredded beef and spent the extra dollar to treat myself to the multilayered shell. Western Reserve smoked cheddar added an exciting, true-to-name smokiness to compliment the rich meats and mild corn salsa with peppers and a sweet, spiced chipotle honey barbecue sauce completed the flavor explosion.
As one friend observed, the “spicy” sauces offered significant flavor, while not overpowering the rest of the food. Barrio offers “white people spice,” if you will. I enjoyed it. I am also white. Even so, when those ingredients came together, I questioned my decision to not attend culinary school.
Its $3 pale-by-comparison-but-still-beautiful-in-its-own-way buddy was a soft tortilla filled with spice-rubbed chicken, complemented by queso fresco—a fresh, mild semi-soft cheese. My love of pineapple moved me to top this taco with the sweet, mild pineapple salsa and Barrio’s housemade “spicy” ranch that they labeled “crack sauce.”
This taco was not the most dynamic at the table, as its color pallette was composed of whites and yellows. The flavors also didn’t work in perfect harmony. Nonetheless, the taco ingredients at Barrio are peppy and fresh, so even the worst taco isn’t that bad.
To finish off this immaculate, thrifty culinary adventure, we opted for what we thought was going to be a thick dip loaded with chunks of fresh crabmeat: the seasonal Crab Rangoon Queso.
After making that decision, everything seemed to take a turn for the worse: the food started to suffer, which meant my guests and I had to as well, I guess, as our waiter started avoiding us. Boredom ensued post-abandonment, so my friend offered me a crumb from the chip basket with fresh juice, squeezed from the lemon in our water, as a joke. While it tasted like window cleaner, it held onto the chip better and had a greater depth of flavor than the dip.
This watered-down cream was the first “disappointing queso” my friend ever had. There were no chunks of meat, sweetness overpowered what should have been a bit savory, the idea of “white people spice” got to the point where it wasn’t amusing anymore and the garnish of long awkward scallions couldn’t be picked up with a chip if we tried.
We paid $8—double that of the Superior Taco—for bland soup meant to be scooped up by tortilla chips. The dip came in a cheap molcajete the size of a soup bowl, and since we unfortunately ordered this as our dessert, we were going to need a few rounds of chips. As we ordered our fourth basket, our server started tapering us off with a smaller one.
Excuse me, sir, it’s not like we didn’t order anything. We did what we were supposed to do. We paid $8 for too much subpar dip, so we deserved some chips. Our waiter understood that when we asked for one more basket, as it magically returned to the original size.
When my friend finally made it impossible for the waiter to ignore us, he, like a squirrel hearing a threatening noise, whipped around and went, “More water?”
My friend tried to finish his sentence, “And ch-”
That man knew. Seriously, what were we supposed to do? Slurp the pulverized false promise of crab and cheese?
The free salsa we started out with at the beginning of our meal was objectively—the three of us unanimously agreed—superior. The red, acidic complimentary appetizer had notes of smoked paprika and is picked up fresh from a commissary every morning, I learned. Our waiter was knowledgeable and friendly in that realm.
I would venture over to Barrio during happy hour, when perhaps they are a bit more attentive and giving of chips and salsa to those going to take advantage of $2 tacos at the bar.
Barrio is located at 2466 Fairmount Blvd. in Cleveland Heights. It is open until 2 a.m. every day of the week. Tacos are affordable and more than worth their prices, but other foods and drinks can get a little expensive, and may not live up to expectations.