This is not your father’s Mexican restaurant. This is high Mexican cuisine (alta cocina mexicana) at its finest. Capitol Hill’s Barrio restaurant, which opened in December 2008 in the vibrant Pike Pine Triangle neighborhood, is already a popular hit.

Barrio's Candle Wall.

With its heavy, high wooden entrance doors, chocolate and red brick walls and what looks like a gazillion fat white candles, Barrio has a modern but cozy ambiance. In reality, a little over 250 candles in wall niches and on tables—and even in the tiled kiva-style fireplace—provide the kind of light we women call “face-friendly.”

Our waiter, Jonathon, points out the menu, printed on brown paper, folded on a plate in front of our places.

The drink menu has a choice you don’t often see: a Pisco Sour.

Pisco Sour and Plantain Chips.

I first tasted this in Peru, where it is famous. Pisco is a kind of brandy, and the drink is made with lemon, lime, and grapefruit juices, honey, and egg whites. This one had a marvelous underlying nutty flavor. My companion had Barrio’s traditional Margarita, a generous portion served in a rock glass.

Barrio’s extensive list of líquidos includes cocktails (with dozens of brands of tequila), beer (seven Mexican brands and even Peru’s Cusqueña), wines, non-alcoholic beverages, coffees and teas, and such novelties as six brands of absinthe. A whole pitcher of sangria is just $15.

Next to the price of every glass of wine is listed the year of its vintage. Jonathan recommends the Almira ‘los dos’, a 2007 vintage red wine from Campo de Borja, Spain.

“This is a combination syrah and Grenache,” he says.

Homemade Tacos.

There’s a pleasant bite to the taste. I imagine if they made a wine from hot peppers, this is what it would taste like. Nothing flaming, just noticeable.

Barrio’s appetizers are artfully presented. The Guacamole is made to order and we found it nicely tart with lime. The quality of the ahi in the Ahi Tuna Crudo—ahi with avocado, orange, tamarind and sesame seeds—is excellent, a nice taste introduction to Barrio’s menu. The Ceviche of Mahi Mahi and shrimp had a delightful variation: pineapple. The lime juice with the pineapple was a surprisingly tasty combination.

The Veracruz-Style Ceviche of Octopus featured manzanilla green olives, capers and dry-cured chorizo that reminded me of prosciutto. This combination is typical of the Veracruz region’s heavy Spanish influence. Another creative dish is the Wild Salmon Ceviche with coconut milk, cucumber and mint.

Steamed local (Pacific NW) Mussels.

A Duo of Salsas features a distinct variety including roasted tomatillo Serrano, smoky ancho chili and fire-roasted tomato habañero (emphasis on “fire”). These are served with a bowl of yucca, plantain and corn chips.

The Local Mussels came steamed in a broth of dry-cured chorizo, habañero chile, and crema, perfect for dipping a stick of toasted bread. The best thing about the Dungeness Crab Cakes is that the ratio of crab to filler is heavy on the crab, as it should be. The cakes are served with a slaw of apple, jicama and fresh tomatillo sauce. Other starters include Roasted Serrano and Pumpkin Seed Hummus, Roasted Poblano Quesadillas and Drunken Black Bean and Wild Mushroom Enfrijolades. Culinary creativity at its best.

Besides tables and chairs, Barrio has a food bar where you can dine and watch the chefs at work, as well as the lady who makes the homemade tortillas.

A Trio of Tacos Tray.

Tacos can be ordered a la carta. It’s hard to choose here, because each one is so uniquely different. There’s a Shredded Chicken en Adobe with toasted sesame seeds and queso cotija; a spiced Duck Confit with dried cherry-ancho salsita; Spice-Rubbed Grilled Albacore with crisp cabbage, citrus vinaigrette and cilantro; and Yucatan-style BBQ Prawns with red chile papaya salsa. We tasted the Smoky Pork Shoulder with golden raisins and sliced almonds, and the Flank Steak Al Carbón with grilled onions, tomatillo salsa and queso cotija and found them both to be satisfying.

(During Happy Hours — Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. & 10 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Friday & Saturday, 12 a.m.-1 a.m. — a smaller menu features five of these different tacos for $2 each.)

A Trio of Tacos may be ordered as an entrée. Other entrée choices included Braised Short Ribs with roasted spaghetti squash, poblano chile and caramelized onion; Enchiladas Rojas with queso fresco, guajillo sauce and braised winter vegetables; Roasted Breast of Free-range Chicken with masa cake, hazelnut pipián and pomegranate syrup; and our favorite, Spice Rubbed Lamp Chop with hominy on an arugula salad with queso añejo.

Spiced Rubbed Lamb.

To accompany the lamb, Jonathan brings a glass of 2007 vintage red Cortes de cima “chaminé.” From Alentejano Portugal, the taste is smoky, soft, silky.

Ensaladas and sopas (salads and soups) include a Barrio Chopped Salad of romaine, red cabbage, pickled red onions, avocado, corn, tomatoes, queso sotija and pumpkin seeds with buttermilk-cilantro dressing, and Ancho Roasted Baby Beets and Quesos de Cabra with arugula, shaved fennel and citrus vinaigrette. The sopa is always different, a soup of the day.

The cuisine at Barrio is an inviting representation of modern Mexico. The menu takes a Northwest approach to Mexican cuisine and compliments it with creative, Latin-focused cocktails.

Bite into Churros.

“Every evening we have an ice cream and a sorbet of the evening,” Jonathon says. “Tonight’s feature is a Meyer lemon ice cream and prickly pear sorbet.” This is a nice, light finish to a meal of taste surprises, but the most popular Barrio dessert—and our immediate favorite—is the plate of Churros served with a dipping bowl of Xocolatl Chocolate. We would have also tried the Dulce de Leche Crème Brûlée, but this evening it was sold out.

To order a cup of coffee is not to get just a cup of coffee. Coffee is served in an ample French Press containing at least two cups, and the cups themselves are more like wide, fat mugs.

Barrio’s high-backed wooden chairs reminded me of ladder backs. The 10-inch-deep cushion squares cant with any shift of your body weight, which takes a minute to get used to. But at the end of the evening you don’t feel like you sat on a chair at all.

Click the TortillaWe’re reluctant to leave the comfortable candle-light ambiance of Barrio. I ask about lighting the candles. Jonathon says they are lit and extinguished every evening by hand, all 250-plus of them. “It’s a very zen task,” he says.

Barrio represents the newest concept of the Heavy Restaurant Group, which also developed the popular Purple Cafes in Seattle, Kirkland,and Woodinville.

Now open for brunch on weekends, Barrio offers a special menu featuring a mix of Mexican breakfast and lunch favorites as well as a Kids Menu and a full offering from the bar.

A second Barrio location is slated to open mid-2009 at the Bellevue Towers project in Downtown Bellevue.

— Feature by Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Food and Wine Editor; photos by Carolyn and courtesy of Barrio.


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