Welcome, dear reader, to the inaugural installment of Food Critic Fridays (FCF), brought to you by The Clean Plate. Geoff’s commentary will be in regular type and Nikki’s is in italics, just so you know who’s speaking.
This week, we are going to review Barrio Star, a hip little Mexican place in the middle of San Diego. After an unsuccessful surf session in North San Diego County (that included one ruined surfboard and two bee stings – all within the span of about 45 minutes), we pointed the car South, to drown our sorrows in Mexican food and drink.
It should be noted that this was also supposed to be my birthday celebration date night. Unfortunately there were a lot of obstacles to the celebration, but at the end of it all, we knew that a trip down to San Diego would yield positive results.
To the location, Barrio Star serves a pretty unique crowd. When I say it’s in the “middle” of San Diego, I mean that it’s actually in the middle of everything. It’s one block away from Balboa park – a geographic delineation that San Diego-ins (San Diegoites?) use to separate different neighborhoods from one another. Think Central Park, only smaller, less well-known, and on the West Coast. Barrio Star’s patrons are a pretty good cross-section of San Diego itself – the LGBT crowd (Hillcrest), Hipsters (North/South Park), young professionals (Banker’s Hill), and summer tourists (Gaslamp) were all present and accounted for. Oh, and the foodies from San Clemente too…
We had been here once before and it was actually the meal that inspired us to start FCF. We love a good verbal dissection of our meals when we dine out. It’s such a novelty to us because I (obviously) usually cook all our meals.
There was a slight wait since it was a Saturday night at 8:00, so we had a drink at the bar. I know. Right now, you’re probably thinking “Alcohol isn’t Paleo!” It isn’t. You’re right. But did I mention that we’d just broken a surfboard in half and been stung by bees? We needed a drink. Shut it. The drinks – a roasted jalapeno blackberry margarita and a “Mexican Mule” (Tequila, ginger beer, bitters, and jalapeno slivers) – were creative and tasty. Well done.
I had a Nor Cal margarita with PLENTY of tequila. God bless the bartender… and Robb Wolf for that matter.
After a short wait, we were shown to our table. The dining room was fairly small and crowded so it was a bit noisy, but coupled with funky decor (a kind of interior decorator on a budget meets Dia del Muerto thing) it worked.
The loudness factor was pretty much the only thing that really bothered me about the atmosphere. If there had been more that two of us, it would have been difficult to hear everyone without shouting. When I go out to dinner, I don’t want to feel like I’m in a club.
Now, prior to arriving, we’d noticed on yelp that some people had also complained because they’d had to actually pay for chips and salsa. Americans seem to always want more. And always for free. Which is mindless.
As a cook, this bothers me. Why would a chef, who puts a lot of time and energy into planning, preparing, and executing these meals want people to fill up on chips before they get to taste their dish. It makes no sense and is downright disrespectful (to chef and diner) to ruin the eating experience with empty calories. I mean, sure… If you’re at Fred’s or El Torito, or any other mediocre Mexican food restaurant, go ahead and binge on the chips. I love me a good chips and salsa bender. In a place like Barrio Star, however, I think it’s important to be hungry and expectant for the meal you are about to eat (AND PAY FOR!!!!).
That being said, we did want to try an appetizer so we did what any responsible Paleo couple would do and we ordered shoestring plantains. They were basically fries, but made from plantains, so they tasted warm and fresh. In reality, they were a good substitute for chips because they were a vehicle for whatever you dipped them in. They came with salsa (great), chipotle cream (which basically tasted like sour cream – not a fan), and cotija cheese. Which I wasn’t sure what to do with. I think the cheese was supposed to be sprinkled on the fries, but I put a stop to that when we ordered them. No dairy for this chick.
I also tried the tortilla soup. I’m spoiled because I lived down the street from the best tortilla soup in the world for about 5 years. (La Especial Norte in Leucadia). I swear this place has unreal soup. (Nikki has blogged about my love of soup here). “If you are sick it will make you well. If you are dead, it will make you alive again.”
Barrio Star’s soup wasn’t THIS good, but it wasn’t half bad. The tortillas in it were crunchy and not soggy – a must for any reputable tortilla soup. The only complaint was that there was excessive amounts of corn in the soup. Which wasn’t necessarily bad. It just gave it a sweet taste. And I would have preferred to have it more savory. But it really wasn’t bad.
For dinner, I had the carnitas taco plate. This was where the meal fell apart for me. Carnitas is (or should be) the mark of a good Mexican restaurant. And I really wanted to like these carnitas because everything else about the meal up to that point had been really good.
The tortillas were home-made and delicious. And the presentation was pretty well done. But the carnitas itself didn’t have very much flavor. Carnitas should punch you in the jaw with flavor when you take a bite – this was more like a soft pat on the shoulder by someone with weak arms. Like a really good date, where everything is going well and the conversation is flowing and your attracted to them, but then when you kiss them, the magic just isn’t there. That was how the carnitas left me feeling.
I had the chopped salad and added carnitas and a healthy helping of sliced avocado in lieu of whatever cheese they were going to throw on there. It wasn’t a totally paleo salad in that it had corn and a couple tortilla chips, but no worries… 80/20 right?!
I agree with the carnitas assessment. I’ve made better, but their inferiority wasn’t as obvious in my salad because there was so much else going on with all the greens, cucumbers, onion, corn, salsa, an AMAZING cumin vinaigrette, and the tortilla chips of course.
Unfortunate. But overall I’d give Barrio Star a B rating. It definitely wasn’t an A, but was above average.
Agreed, a solid B from the chef. I appreciate the use of plantains and spices, and the overall freshness of the food. Another great detail was the use of dietary restriction labels on the menu. They had symbols for gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian items on the menu next to each dish. It was so simple, a caveman could do it.
If you’re ever in the fine city of San Diego, go check them out.
Paleo tip: They have a starter on the menu with carnitas and avocado on top of fried plantain slices. These are the bomb and should be eaten at every Barrio Star outing.