Sunday, April 14, 2013

El Barrio - Birmingham

If there was one thing I brought back from the wedding in Lexington, aside from a greater appreciation for Kentucky’s fine spirit, it was a recommendation for a new Birmingham lunch spot. By some curious twist of fate, one of the first people I met at the cocktail hour was a newly minted doctor who now calls Birmingham home. After whole heartedly agreeing that Frank Stitt did not have a bad restaurant in his lineup, we got down to the brass tacks of where else in Birmingham was worth a visit. Her first suggestion was El Barrio, a new Mexican restaurant with lines out the door. Fortunately, it was little more than a month later, while driving from Atlanta to Jackson for the holidays, that I had a chance to try El Barrio for lunch. It was time to see if Martha Mae’s recommendations were worth their salt.

Though it may well be far from authentic to any regional Mexican cuisine, there is no escaping the allure of chips and queso or, in this case, queso fundido with roasted peppers and chorizo.
Per the description, this queso fundido included tequila, goat cheese, and chipotle, but what I found was a thin and watery dip that had the flavors of cheese for a foundation but not much else.
There were a few precious pieces of chorizo bobbing in the dip but hardly enough to justify the extra cost.
For dipping, the tortilla chips were crispy but lacking even a dusting of salt.

Wanting to try at least one dish from the taco section of the menu, the al pastor taco fit the bill nicely.
Exceedingly tender, the pork was dominated by caramelized pineapple. 
While all the flavors were augmented by a squeeze of fresh lime, this was a fair taco that left me wanting more from the chili-marinated pork.

Being mid December in the South, there was a break in the summer weather and a little winter chill was gripping the region. Knowing that braised dishes are always good in fighting against the cold, one order of beef “barbacoa” was soon at my table.
Although listed as boneless short ribs, chorizo, white beans, ancho, and citrus on the menu, there were a few more items at work in this bowl.
One thing that stuck out with this “barbacoa” was the contrast in texture. The boneless short ribs fell apart at the slightest touch while the greens provided a vegetal crunch to each bite.
Aside from chalky and undercooked beans, there was the issue of the braising liquid. Even though it was densely flavored, this dish seemed to be verging on a beef and vegetable soup. A piece of the jalapeno cornbread would have been an apt solution but that was left to the pork chili verde.

Three dishes down and I was having second thoughts about Martha Mae’s lunch recommendation. While there were some well crafted flavors at work with the short ribs of the barbacoa, the taco al postor failed to make an impression, the queso fundido was a watery mess, and it’s hard to forgive the chalky texture of poorly cooked white beans.  By and large, I left El Barrio unimpressed and wishing that I had driven the few extra blocks to Stitt’s Chez Fon Fon. Maybe Martha Mae’s next recommendation will strike gold.

El Barrio Address & Information
2211 Second Avenue North, Birmingham, Al 35203 // 205.868.3737 // El Barrio Website // El Barrio Menu
El Barrio on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the problem was the choices: The Guac with a little extra lime makes me glad there was no salt on the chips, as there was plenty of natural flavors already going on. The Chili relleno was inspired and full, a palet that was surprising but very pleasant. The goat cheese and veggie quesadilla was a fresh, rich mix. When I've had fish, it was spicey, flakey, cook just right and complimenting the light vegetables served with it.

And I am so sorry you missed the sopapilla - while not always on the menu, I've gone there JUST for this spicey and sweet dessert!

Cynical Cook said...


-Thank you for your input. Maybe I hit El Barrio on a bad day.