The last time I sipped a cold beer in Barroco Grill, I did so only after purchasing it elsewhere and lugging it inside with me. This time around, all we had to do was ask. After years of waiting patiently, this beloved Lakewood restaurant recently nabbed a liquor license, the latest in a long and continuous string of improvements that have completely reshaped the business.
"This used to be my apartment," says owner Juan Vergara, pointing to various sections of the restaurant's expanded dining room. "This would have been the living room, that was the bedroom, and that's the kitchen."
The best restaurants seem to evolve over time, gradually responding to the needs and desires of the community around it. That's exactly what has taken place at Barroco, which just celebrated its fifth birthday. Over that stretch of time, the operation has progressed from a Pop-and-Son shop with a scant 12 seats to a colorful and exciting destination for 80 guests — 150 if you count the wrap-around patio.
In addition to steadily adding onto the physical space, Juan and his father, Carlos, increasingly expanded the menu. What started out as a small card — not even a pamphlet! — with one appetizer and a handful of sandwiches, including the much-loved arepas, has grown into a creative catalogue of Pan-Latin offerings.
"We haven't taken anything out, we've only added things," Juan explains.
That means we can still split an order of that ridiculous cheesy corn ($9), a munchies-slaying melty cheese fondue dotted with corn, chicken and bacon and served with dunkable deep-fried arepa fingers. A slightly more adult version is now available, this one ($9) blended with tomato-based sofrito, grilled chorizo and melted cheddar-jack cheese.
Plantains — both the sweet and starchy varieties — play a significant role throughout the menu. A pair of appetizers illustrates the range of the ingredient. The sweet, creamy and soft ones are topped with queso fundido in a dish called maduros con queso ($8), while the thin, crisp and starchy ones are used like chips for the wide array of dips, stews and mashes in the colossal tostadas con todo ($35), which easily feeds a table of six or more. It's weighed down with guacamole, cheesy corn, shredded beef, chili beans and chewy chicharron.
An entire section of the menu is devoted to entrees built around plantains, with either the sweet or savory starch employed as bases for all sorts of concoctions starring braised beef, grilled chicken, ham and pineapple, and even beef Bolognese sauce. Another portion of the menu is dedicated to carnivores, with hearty Latin classics like ropa vieja, carne asada and Bandeja Paisa, a spread containing shredded beef, chorizo sausage, plantains, chicharrones, avocado, fried egg and white rice.
A few years back, Barroco switched from round arepas to square ones. The official explanation was that the shape worked better for sandwiches. In truth, it was to distinguish the Vergara's handmade ones from the commercially available frozen ones.
"There's an easy way and a hard way to making arepas," Juan says. "We do it the hard way."
Long the main attraction at Barroco, the hot, crisp and corny arepa sandwiches now come in nearly 20 varieties, a far cry from the days when chorizo, steak or pork were pretty much the only options. I'll forever be hooked on the chorizo, with onions, peppers and mozzarella ($12), but I could be persuaded to try an open-face version topped with melted cheese, braised beef and a fried egg.
Of course, the arepa's true calling is to serve as vessel for Barroco's killer sauces, a half-dozen squeeze bottles filled with creamy blends like chimichurri, pineapple, ranchero and a killer spicy peanut.
And now, at long last, diners can wash it all down with a draft craft beer, a strawberry mojito, or a delicious piña colada for two ($15), served with a pair of straws in a hand-painted wide-rimmed bowl. It's the kind of attention to detail that has always been a component of this warm, welcoming eatery. Everywhere you look, there's another glimmer of colorful art, graffiti or sculpture that enriches the space to no end.
"I feel like I have so many cool ideas that I still want to do here," says Juan. "Something as little as painting the bowls for the cocktails. I'm just now getting around to doing them five years later."
He'll have even less time in the coming months. He and his father just purchased a building down the block, a large warehouse-style space next to the Bevy in Birdtown. The plans for the space are still coming together, but Juan says that the operation will be "something cool and different, with a bar, live entertainment and Latin American food component."
"It's been a journey, for sure," he says. "It's been fun."