It goes without saying that taquerias tend to be modest establishments — if you can call them "establishments" at all — characterized by steam tables, linoleum floors, and flickering fluorescent lights. Barrio, in stark contrast, exists in the former home of the once-posh 806 Wine and Martini Bar. It's an odd fit to be sure, but one that matters less and less with each passing margarita.
What I like most about Barrio is that they kept things blissfully simple. The house motto should be, "Relax, it's just tacos." And just tacos it is: Other than a handful of starters and sides — and a landslide of tequilas and margaritas — the menu is devoted entirely to tacos. Fillings too are wisely restrained, limited to just seven, unlike the short-lived Roseangel that complicated matters with nearly 20.
Comparisons to Happy Dog are inevitable. Like that interactive casa de hot dog, Barrio puts the diners in charge of designing their own tacos using a pencil and paper chit. Categories include the type of shell, the meat or veg, sauce, salsa, toppings, and cheese. All tacos, regardless the construction, are $3. It's a fun and casual system that fits neatly with the concept.
Meals begin with a complimentary basket of warm, salty tortilla chips served with the house salsa. We found the accompanying salsa roja pleasantly spicy but way too sweet for our tastes. We tacked on an order of the salsa verde, which was agreeably tart but lacking any discernable heat. And at $5 per order, the salsa is pricier than the tacos.
A slightly better deal is the Tres Amigos, a sampler that shaves a buck or three off the price of three starters depending on your selections. Ours included salsa, queso blanco, and traditional guacamole. After a taste of each we were beginning to feel a bit like Goldilocks, wishing this one had more salt, that one more acid, and the other more spice. None, sadly, was "just right."
Warm, melty, and mild, the queso blanco pairs well with the crispy chips, but it screamed for chiles and fresh herbs. The guacamole was ripe, smooth and fruity, but we could detect no lime or salt. Other versions of guac and queso feature add-ons like smoked salmon and chorizo, respectively.
With 30 taco options to choose from and an infinite number of possible combinations, it's both sensible and reassuring to put pen to paper rather than order verbally. Every aspect of the taco is customizable, from the outside in. Pick hard or soft, corn or flour. Fill it with tender braised beef, zesty chorizo, chopped (not pulled, as billed) dark meat chicken, tofu, or refried beans.
There are a dozen salsas and sauces from which to choose, including chipotle crema, habañero mango, and fiery Barrio Secret. Cap off your creation with lettuce, cabbage, onions and cilantro, tomato, and three types of cheese.
It's true that tacos often arrive at the table less than hot. But the blame for that, I believe, should be equally split between house and diner. I'm willing to bet that tacos sit in the kitchen for too long while orders — often large and complex — are assembled. But when diners are given carte blanche to add unlimited free toppings — all of them cold — to their taco, the fragile tortillas and dollop of hot meat don't stand a chance. Coincidentally, I experienced the same issues at Happy Dog.
The best tactic is to top modestly, which is how tacos are served at taquerias: a few onions, some fresh cilantro, a squirt of lime, a drizzle of salsa.
Thanks to great prices and the snackability of the food, Barrio has become one of Tremont's most popular happy hour stops. During the weekday sessions, all tacos are just $2 a pop and well-built margaritas are half off, making them just $3. The only drawback? Diners must sit in the bar, not on the lovely patio.
Service can get bogged down at times and we would have appreciated a call back regarding a reservation request left on voicemail, but we managed to leave Barrio very content on two occasions.
After all, it's just tacos.