There’s a certain kind of restaurant you associate with River North. A huge restaurant with loud, thumping music, full of out-of-towners ready for a night out in the city. There might even be a celebrity chef attached to the concept. In other words, a scene. These things don’t necessarily mean a place is bad - as long as you know what you’re getting into ahead of time, and the food is good, some spots like this can be enjoyable. But Barrio is not one of them.
This upscale Mexican restaurant has all the above-mentioned River North qualities, including a former Top Chef contestant behind the scenes, a DJ booth, and a disco ball in the women’s bathroom. And while to some, these might be understandable reasons to walk the other way, they aren’t the issue with Barrio.
The problem here is the food. The dishes sound interesting on paper, but almost everything on the menu has a component that ruins it. The octopus tacos (topped with potato crisps) taste like someone squeezed a bottle of lemon juice from the grocery store all over them. The achiote marinated chicken in the chicken al pastor has a nice flavor, but needs salsa to bring it back from the edge of dehydration.
There’s also a major consistency issue. Things that are fine on one visit will likely disappoint you the next. For example, the charred eggplant. One time we tried it, it was the right amount of crispy. Another time, it was heavily soaked in oil and charred to the point of bitterness. Same with the housemade corn tortillas. They can be gummy, dry, or rubbery - and sometimes all three, depending on how many come with your meal.
All of this is made worse by the fact that Barrio is inescapably expensive. There’s no way around it - if you try multiple things, the bill adds up fast. Tacos are $17 and come in orders of three (with no mixing and matching - you get three of the same kind). DIY taco platters, meant to serve 2-3, range from $27 - $58, and entrees start at $34. These prices aren’t unusual for River North, but with food this disappointing, there are better sceney restaurants where you should be spending your money.
Barrio does have a few redeeming qualities. The nachos are always pretty good. And the servers here are very nice and helpful. They also really seem excited about the food - to the point that you leave hoping they’ll be able to move on to better restaurants.
Going out to trendy spots in River North can be a gamble. There are lots of options - some great, and some truly awful. If you don’t know which is which, you run the risk of falling into an expensive trap. Barrio, with its overpriced and inconsistent food, is a bad bet.
There are five salsas to choose from. For $5 you get one, and for $20 you can get all five. The salsa verde and the chile mango are the best ones, so get one of those (or both). Hope that you luck out and get a chip basket that’s not greasy.
This is served in a cast iron skillet with a side of agave-sweetened butter. Depending on the day, the cornbread might be dry or moist. Either way, you can count on it being served with a Crocodile Dundee-style knife that you will need to clumsily wield to cut and butter the cornbread. But the butter is good.
If you like fried stuff, go ahead and order these. They’re not memorable, but they taste fine.
Every time we’ve been here, our server has told us to order the grilled octopus. And every time we’ve gotten it, it’s been tough. But the potatoes and roasted tomato mayo it’s served with are good.
There are three kinds of tacos on the menu - barbacoa and pineapple, octopus topped with potato crisps, and mushroom and gruyere. The mushroom is the best - the acidic garlic crema works with the earthy mushrooms and cuts through the fatty gruyere. The other two (with overly acidic octopus and stringy, salty barbacoa) can be skipped.
The “deconstructed taco” platters are meant to serve 2-3, and come with tortillas so you can build-your-own. For chicken al pastor you get achiote marinated chicken, crispy kale, and charred pineapple. If we had to come here again, this is what we’d order. There’s not too much pineapple, and the achiote marinated chicken is very dry, but the flavor is OK. Just check your teeth before you smile after eating the crispy kale.
This dish would be all right (the meat is tender and the grits it comes with are great) if it weren’t for the tamarind glaze on the short ribs. Its strong flavor overwhelms everything it touches.
A side dish, and the best thing on the menu. Charred corn with cotija cheese - it’s simple and delicious.
When the eggplant isn’t soaked in oil and charred beyond recognition, this is a tasty side dish. We like the addition of honey, almonds, and mint. But at Barrio, you won’t know how it will be until it arrives at the table.
A solid nacho preparation. These come with pork, jack cheese, beans, and a cilantro crema. Order this if you’re sitting in the bar area.