Latin Love

Rejoice, frugal gourmets, mezcal afficionadoes, and taquería-loving lounge lizards! The La Belle Vie crew has brought its magic to a tequila bar.

Daydreams are usually the only place you get to put celebrities into your day-to-day: What sort of Little League coach would Joe DiMaggio be? What would Greta Garbo pluck from the sale rack at Macy’s? Suddenly, however, smack dab in the middle of Nicollet Mall, a little bit of star-touched speculative fantasy has come to life. Had anyone ever dared to daydream about what sort of taquería Tim McKee would open? I never did. But it’s here. World, meet Barrio Tequila Bar—the spicy fine-dining restaurant where most everything costs $7.50 or less. Seriously.

Of course, McKee is Minneapolis’s leading fine-dining chef, a James Beard nominee for the haute fantasies on offer at his flagship restaurant, La Belle Vie. Barrio Tequila Bar has no white tablecloths. The room is all dark red and gothic black, accented with quirky pieces: a candelabra with wax-spilling candles, video screens showing spaghetti Westerns, and, on the walls, retro bullfight posters; cumbia and Latin hip-hop tumble from the overhead speakers. If you’ve ever wondered where in Minneapolis indie filmmaker John Waters would take ’40s cult-film star Lupe Velez and Google co-founder Sergey Brin for dinner, now you know.

And they would eat very well. The red-chile enchiladas are spicy and fresh, but it’s the trembling sunny-side-up egg on the top that makes them scrumptious. Pierce the yolk and it swoons around the smoky cornmeal and chorizo, turning the earthy spice voluptuous.

Fine-dining touches elevate most dishes. Citrus segments in the jicama salad or the scallop ceviche are cut “a vif”—that is, the pith, pits, and peel are precisely cut away, yielding simple geometric jewels of grapefruit or orange. The scallop ceviche is made with sushi-quality shellfish, and is so briefly “cooked” with citrus juice that it maintains its straight-from-the-sea translucence, and would be at home in any fine-dining restaurant in the country.

I could rhapsodize forever on the many highlights of the menu, but I will say that the smaller plates offer more bang for the buck than the larger ones. The skirt steak, for instance, was tender and tasty, and enlivened considerably by a spicy sauce of micro-diced sweet peppers. But when measured against the three or four other things you could order for the same price, it didn’t seem as exciting.

My advice to Barrio-goers: Order a lot, but slowly, in stages. My main criticism of Barrio is that if you order 10 things, the wait staff will always bring all 10, immediately. Also, get the soup: A fresh sweet-corn chowder with tangy queso fresco was on offer when I visited. It was so vibrant that it practically generated its own light. Oh, and the churros arrive at the table in a great tangle and piping hot—they’re officially now the best doughnuts in the city.

Photo by Todd Buchanan

Is all this gushing getting dull to read? So sorry. I’ll bore you even further by mentioning that the drinks are terrific. Designed by Minneapolis’s own Mozart of the cocktail shaker, Johnny Michaels, certain drinks like the Macho Camacho—a margarita made dusky with muddled smoked chili peppers and light with cava—are everything a cocktail should be: fresh, fun, creative, cravable conversation-starters, and too much trouble to make at home. Barrio specializes in sipping tequilas, and McKee tells me the one thing he is most excited about at the restaurant are Michaels’s compadres, little non-alcoholic shots, priced at $1.50, designed to draw particular flavors from the tequilas. The house-infused tamarind cola, for instance, coaxes nuances of smoke and mineral from an aged añejo tequila, while tomato water makes a reposado shine. Set a few compadres beside a single tequila, or ask for Junior, Barrio’s manager, for more ideas on this theme.

Speaking of drinks, I hope they pour a cold one for Bill Fairbanks, who is the chef in charge of Barrio. Fairbanks was McKee’s longtime sous chef at La Belle Vie, and he has what might be the toughest job in Minneapolis right now: maintaining La Belle Vie standards at Saturday-at-the-mall volume. For a while, I was obsessed with Barrio’s guacamole, which I was briefly convinced was the best in the known universe. Did it have some chefly trick to it, was it made with some Umbrian truffle oil, some Martian yuzu powder? No, McKee told me, they simply serve 100 a day, and it’s just that it’s as fresh as a fine-dining kitchen in a full panic can make it. Which is fresh.

Speaking of fresh, Barrio has inspired a fresh daydream in me: If I had all the money in the world—and a time-travel machine—I would like to transport between Barrio and the country’s other Latin American fine-dining standard bearers, like Chicago’s Topolobampo or New York’s Mesa Grill. The first time I went to Barrio, I thought, It’s much better than Topolobampo. The second time I thought, No, it’s about the same. Either way, it’s big news, a daydream come to life, right in the heart of downtown, served with chips.

 * Click here to watch an online tour of Barrio.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

925 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Lunch and dinner served Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.;
Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Dinner served Saturday and Sunday from
4 p.m. to 2 a.m.