- Alex Springer
Usually, when the warmer weather approaches, I start getting excited for patio dining downtown. There are few things finer than listening to the happy chatter of fellow diners as the warm summer breeze visits each table like a gracious host.
This year, however, patio dining season brings with it an air of uncertainty and pandemic-related apprehension. It's hard to enjoy the multitude of little pleasures that come from dining out when COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc across the state. When I saw that Barrio (282 E. 900 South, 801-915-5022, barrioslc.com) was cautiously opening their patio with the appropriate level of pandemic precautions, I decided to mask up and venture forth to see what it's like out there.
I've visited Barrio several times since it opened, which is why I thought its well-hedged patio on the corner of 300 East and 900 South would be ideal for dinner with a side of social distancing. It's also beautiful—sheltered from the sun by a wooden canopy that's strung with hanging lights—and its proximity to the Maven District means there's always some great people-watching to be had. Since Barrio's announcement came to my attention on a Taco Tuesday, I decided that avoiding a cosmic layup of this magnitude would surely bring some ill karma my way if I didn't take action.
Whether you're also in the mood for some social-distance dining or simply placing a takeout order, you get a lot of bang for your buck at Barrio. None of their street-style tacos are more than $4, and each one packs a well-balanced mix of flavor and texture. If you're feeling a bit basic, the pollo asado ($2.75), arrachera ($4) and calabacitas ($3.25) are all great bets. The pollo asado brings the dark meat goodness with marinated chicken thighs and the arrachera is served up with Wagyu steak from Snake River Farms; even when the tacos are relatively straightforward, you're still getting some primo ingredients. For a vegetarian option, the calabacitas are stuffed with sautéed zucchini, corn and onions that have been seasoned to perfection. This trio of tacos is a home run any day of the week.
For those after something a bit more creative in their tortilla, the cochinita pibil ($3.25) is the crown jewel of Barrio's menu. It's a healthy pile of shredded pork that has been marinated in an aromatic and flavorful blend of achiote, sour orange juice, cinnamon and cloves and then roasted in banana leaves. The slow cooking process makes the pork sinfully tender and the marinade highlights all that excellent pork flavor. The carnitas ($3) are also manifestos to the glory of slow-cooked pork, and they can totally hang with the cochinitas. The decision to order one over the other always sends me into a tailspin of indecision—which is why I'll usually order both.
Though the pork tacos are the ones that call me back, I must give some props to the mole tacos ($3.25) at Barrio. They're made with mole negro, a rich and silky sauce replete with flavors of slightly burnt chocolate and sweet raisins. It's slathered on top of marinated chicken, and every bite is savory and delicious.
Summer months are perfect for shrimp tacos, and I'm a fan of Barrio's surf and turf offering ($4) which combines some garlicky grilled shrimp with that luscious Wagyu steak to spectacular effect. Though the calabacitas are my preferred vegetarian option, their chorizo vegano ($4) taco is an excellent plant-based party in your mouth.
If you're looking for some sides to round out your Barrio experience, the nachos ($7) are a great choice. Barrio makes their tortilla chips in-house, so they are fresh and warm before getting hit with four types of cheese, black beans, corn, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. An extra few bucks gets you any of the taco proteins added to the mix; the pollo is particularly complementary here. I'm also quite fond of the street corn in a cup ($4.50), which captures the traditional flavors of grilled Mexican street corn while buffing out the ingredient list with lime aioli, cotija cheese and ancho chile powder. It may not be as much fun as eating off the cob, but it's a tasty way to supplement your taco experience.
Of course, street tacos are awfully lonely without some margaritas or cerveza close at hand, and Barrio's has got that covered as well. Those who like a bit of kick in their liquor will dig the jalapeño ($7) that gives Barrio's classic margarita formula a dose of capsaicin, and anyone after something closer to top shelf will swoon for the Cadillac ($10) which is made with Patrón Silver and Grand Marnier.
Despite feeling a bit more anxious than usual, I had to admit that it was really damned nice to sit down with a plate of tacos and catch up with downtown Salt Lake City. Here's hoping she and I can do this again sometime soon—preferably when going outside stops filling me with existential dread.