Barrio opened three years ago in a former Downtown Wendy’s location, but unlike many fast-food conversion projects, you wouldn’t recognize it. During dinner, this two-story restaurant is dimly lit and swanky-yet-casual with its wood-crate-meets-rusty-steel decor. Barrio is equally known as a place to grab a drink for happy hour (I enjoyed half a pitcher of white sangria for half price during my visit, which was good, but a little heavy on the grapefruit side) as it is a place to dine, lending even more to the casual atmosphere.
Recently, Barrio gave their menu an overhaul, and I thought it was good timing for a revisit (though their website does not display the new menu as of yet). The focus of the menu remains on small plates meant for sharing with companions, but many are substantial enough for a standalone meal for one. One very noticeable change to the menu — and I’m not exactly sure when this happened — is that many of the dishes are named in plain english. I seem to recall many dishes titled in spanish, reflecting the menu’s influences from across Latin American and Spain. I assume the change was to help clear up confusion, but I sort of miss the exotic charm that it added. Even “tapas” on the menu has been replaced with the wording of “small plate”.
The Fried Green Tomatillos ($7) are on the tapas small plates section of the menu. Four slices of tomatillo are lightly breaded and fried. The tomatillos are softened in the process but still have a great semi-tangy flavor. They’re complimented with two sauces: an avocado aioli and a mango ketchup sauce. Both have great flavors to them, and work together well, though neither really had much of a punch. Some additional spices of some sort could be used to make these sauces a little less forgettable.
Barrio’s Empanadas have been given a slight revamp, but retain the same pricing structure (3 for $8 / 6 for $14 / 9 for $20). I tried the Ohio Raised Braised Beef Empanada, which is served with an agave BBQ dipping sauce, the Black Bean and Queso Empanada, served with tomato aioli, and the Chorizo and Potato Empanada, with a side of chipotle lime sour cream. The empanada dough is well made, flaky and soft. One of my empanadas was only half the size, and I wasn’t sure if that was normal or if they ran out of dough. As far as the filling goes, the braised beef stood out as the winner of this trio. Tender meat and a nice sauce tangy bbq sauce to accompany it. The chorizo was extremely finely ground which left it dry, and the black bean and queso filling was pretty basic. Their sauces are both fine, but don’t do enough to salvage the average filling flavors.
The Coconut Prawn ($14) is another option on the small plate menu. Two regular sized shrimp are coated in toasted coconut and served on a bed of black bean, corn and jicama salad with a blueberry margarita marmalade. The shrimp were well prepared, but a bit on the small side to be referring to them as prawns. Slightly misleading, but the flavors were nice. I enjoyed the freshness of the vegetable salad, and the sweet syrupiness of the marmalade was surprising but it worked. I couldn’t have eaten much more of it, but it was a balanced portion for the dish.
The Seared Scallops with Roasted Herb Parsnips ($14) was another dish from the small plates menu. Three smallish scallops are served along with sliced vodka-poached pears, chorizo, a lobster saffron vanilla sauce and topped with dollops of pepper jam. Needless to say, there was a lot of components to this dish. Individually, they all tasted fine on their own (and looked pretty on the plate), except for the chorizo, which again was the same dry crumble that was served in the empanadas. I enjoyed the sweet boozy pears quite a bit, but they belong on a dessert plate instead. The pepper jam could have been omitted and this dish would have felt a lot more balanced. Addition through subtraction.
Barrio has some hits and some misses with their new menu. Many of the dishes come across as overplanned and overdressed for a venue that has a very laid back atmosphere. All ingredients tasted fresh, and it’s obvious that a skillful hand was executing these plates, regardless of my quibbles with flavors or textures. Of the dishes I tried, I’d only recommend one or two of them, but with at least a dozen other offerings to be explored, I’m confident that a return visit could produce better results with some additional tasting and experimentation.
If anything, go during happy hour for half-off pitchers of sangria and margaritas and you’ll go home happy.
Barrio is located at 185 North High Street in Downtown Columbus. More information can be found online at www.barriotapas.com.