Barrio in St. Paul

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Judd Spicer has an eye educated by seven years in the Twin Cities’ liquor industry and four years’ experience as a local private investigator specializing in food and beverage quality evaluations. Herein, he tours and types about his experiences at establishments across Minnesota. Please join us with an open mind, and a full glass.

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Barrio, translated from Spanish, means “neighborhood.” As my party of three strolled the streets of Lowertown on a Friday of not-so-distant yore, I continued to marvel at the sight of cabs lined up before this nascent establishment and the neighboring Bulldog in what was once my own sleepy barrio. Back when I lived in these parts, just past the turn of the millennium, when people talked about coming to Lowertown on the weekend, it generally meant a roam through the Art Crawl or the farmers market.

Taxis don’t align for produce.

In October of last year, the third Bulldog incarnation opened at the adjacent Mears Park location; in June of this year, James Beard Award-winner Tim McKee, Josh Thoma and crew trended to St. Paul with their second Barrio locale. The corner duo has buoyed a collective known as the Lowertown Entertainment District, and has created an unquestionable push-pin destination for this nook of the capital city.

But just as we in the T.C. are prone to flood a hot spot, we are equally apt to cool to a quality establishment once the next vogue place opens a year later. McKee’s progeny (La Belle Vie and Solera among them) seem to have deservedly warded off an economic and smoking ban scourge that has brought down many a quality enterprise. But is their vast shelving of Barrio tequilas long enough to outlast a Minnesota winter and melt a chill that is oft-equated with St. Paul after dark?

If the full bar and active host stand upon our 6:55pm arrival is any indicator, the place shows no signs of slowing. Such has been the case in each of my six visits to Barrio.

Once a trio of stools eventually opens for us, the awesome display of 130 tequila options stands proud behind the 40-foot-long bar. As do the barkeeps. These gents aren’t simply present to toss the intimidating list of tequila options your way and await your nervous declaration of “That Añejo, I guess.” Rather, the barmen have obviously been well-trained to detail the succinct list of Johnny Michaels-crafted cocktails and margaritas, to handle the unique mixology array of fresh juices and uncommon mixers and, more importantly, to provide some hand-holding through the vast selection of Blanco, Reposado and Añejo tequilas. Their presentation is impressive, and at least upon this earlier juncture of the evening, the product familiarity owned by the bartenders breeds nothing precarious.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

An intended point of repetition: This lengthy tequila menu is imposing. Sure, there are the rare few patrons who will have the acumen to marvel at the options. But because of its incipience in Minnesota, one will find more bullshitters perusing a tequila list than in any other liquor niche (i.e., beer, scotch, wine). Tequila and its tenets are to 2009 what vodka was to a decade ago. If you seek an “experience” at Barrio, follow the advice of your hosts. Don’t just order a Patron.

These barkeeps are armed with more than just a dozen interchangeable adjectives to describe their liquid benefactor. They know the difference between a tequila and a mescal. They can talk at length about the blue agave plant and the different regions of Mexico. They can detail the aging process for different types of their championed liquor. This ain’t hovering an index finger above two Cabernets at an Olive Garden — at Barrio (as the prices dictate) you’re paying up for knowledge. And the staff has done their homework, although the placement of their classroom may cause unease for some as the hours progress. And make no mistake: Yes, they will try to upsell some tequilas in the $20 range (and really, at about $14, the Del Senor Reposado is worth it). But that’s their job: to assist, to navigate, to sell.

The barmen will also be happy to make suggestions — for both their well-presented cocktails and the oft-impressive menu of affordable Mexican street foods — to match your proclivity. Regarding the latter, both the “Diver Scallop Ceviche” and “Crab Empanada” plates are consistently excellent, and the “Fresh Corn Chowder” is delicious — for the sober. There’s really nothing attractive about watching a drunken person spooning soup.

Regarding the drinks: “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” mix of tequila with tamarind cinnamon cola is truly unique, wonderfully refreshing, and especially tasty — ideal for an evening starter.  Accolades also extend to both the “Old Cuban” mojito and “The Trinity” margarita. Inversely, stay the hell away from the “Macho Camacho” margarita. One would rather be gored in a bull ring than choke down more than one of these concoctions of blood orange Ancho 1800 black margarita with a splash of cava. Had I ordered another, I may have been the first. Let’s just say that’s the drink’s believed inspiration, boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho, is actually Puerto Rican and was just busted for breaking probation on a 2007 burglary charge.

To stay with the boxing metaphor: After a lengthy stay at Barrio don’t be surprised to find yourself looking like you took one on the kisser. That goes for both sides of the ring. While the average consumer’s palate isn’t tempered to ingest copious amount of tequila (even at a sipping pace), the expert gullet, as it goes with repetition, is more schooled to handle repeated and varied glasses.

That’s to say that as you drink, the barkeeps at Barrio will join you.

Which is not always a bad thing, as the barmen here are both generous and savvy enough to partake in a complimentary tasting of a given tequila. But while the serving surface at Barrio is well-kept, drinking while working can be a slippery slope.

Did I ever drink behind the bar in my own years of service? Yes. But the amounts were diminutive and I was demure when going about the practice. In addition: I never let it affect the presentation of the establishment as a whole. Personally, I always like to pretend the bar is a stage. Yes, the barkeep is a person (and hopefully an engaging one); however the engagement comes in the form of a performance on that stage. An exceptional barman is not only himself, but a performance of himself.

On multiple occasions on this eve in question, one barkeep was seen drinking behind the bar. And as the night grew long, it’s merely candid to say that his performance was affected. Did he remain engaging? Yes. But sometimes it was at the suffering of our party, as he was active being engaging with every party, which takes time. As the hours progressed, our service grew worse: less attention, confusing tab, and a visible, albeit managed alteration in interpersonal behavior.

Our bill was constructed upon our 11:10 departure and our party collected outside amid an active neighborhood. Before parting into the eve, it was noted that while Barrio is indeed worth the audience price of a $9 / per cocktail-ticket, the acting can get a little sloppy come a midnight performance.

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15 Comments

  1. Joshy Morganna the Kissing Bandit11/12/2009Reply

    Agreed – Barrio is a cool spot….different than other places downtown, St. Paul. I personally like the food more than the drink options…

  2. What a wonderful article Mr. Spicer! It’s great to finally see some quality writing on this great website. You’ve captured the milieu of this St. Paul treasure perfectly and reading your article instantly transported me to Lowertown; I can almost taste the Trinity.

    I love both incarnations of Barrio and it’s so nice to have one on each side of the river.

  3. Judd,

    Great article. Good to see someone stayed awake during English class at the Academy.

  4. What a great, well-written and insightful review! I am definitely going to check this place out – I want to try that Ceviche and the ‘Good, Bad and Ugly’ cocktail – sounds fantastic!

  5. Dear Friends of the Author,

    We empathize with your support for Judd, who is, in fact, a fine writer. If from here on in we could all collectively keep comments on a more observational (as opposed to purely laudatory) level, that would be much appreciated.

    Best Regards,

    James Norton
    Editor

  6. I left my first reading of this post with the surprising impression that staff are overindulging at Barrio — surprising to me because in all my visits to other Tim McKee and co. establishments I have been amazed at the level of professionalism of the staff (admittedly, I’ve never sat at the bar). I gather this piece is written from the perspective of a single visit, but do you think this was an isolated incident or something that we should expect when visiting Barrio? Has anybody else made the same observation?

  7. well written, if from a purely literary perspective. but is it really necessary to throw a bartender (and potentially a well-intentioned business owner) under the bus in an on-line forum when you could just as easily have done it on site in the moment, or via email, if you were really that concerned? just curious.

  8. Love the Minneapolis Barrio. Will definitely try St. Paul. Thanks for the read. “Geoff”, lighten up. No one’s gonna lose their job buddy.

  9. mark cuban11/12/2009Reply

    Are tequila establishments new to the twin cities, are all high end as the author implies from his experience in the Barrio?

  10. In college I did a consumer behavior study about bar norms/mores re: buybacks and altruism.

    The results were basically overwhelmingly in support of both bartenders passing around the proverbial wealth and occasionally partaking, when looked at from a ROI/Average ticket size.

  11. Author

    Tom — while this was my 6th visit (as the article notes), observations were gathered via this visit in particular. Should you return, and saddle up at the bar, I’d be most interested to learn if you see more of the same.

    Geoff — Tossing under the bus, in my opinion and experience, would be to use names. The objective herein is by no means to get anybody sacked, it’s rather to raise an awreness level about what happens at dining establishments beyond placing an order, paying a tab, etc. It’s my hope that the positives of the experience stay with you as well.

    Mark Cuban — While establishments that serve an extended tequilia menu aren;t necessarily new, Barrio’s arrival began with their Nicollet Mall opening in August of ’08. Among others, Bar Abilene in Uptown also has a fine list.

    ryanl — If applicable, link the study back here; would love it see what you found. And I would concurr with what I gather were your findings. But note that such larger ticket sales do not always behoove bar owners as much as the employess. I’ve seen a few people fired for just such “passing around.” Of course, that surely changes on a case-by-case basis.

  12. I shared a similar experience in NYC a few months back. The barkeeps were cool and very well versed with Tequila and its varieties. But it must be the same with many Tequila bars and restaurants in that the bartenders drink along with the patrons and the service suffers as the night rolls along.

  13. While I don’t disagree with the writer’s assessment, I’ve been to the S.P. Barrio late at night and having worked in fine dining and in the service industry myself, I would be pretty surprised if the owners are ok with their staff drink heavily while on the job.

    Good article and a cool idea — there aren’t many mainstream publications that would be this honest. but I really want to know: has Spicer worked in the restaurant industry? It’s easy to be critical if the writer doesn’t have the experience.

    James, why are you monitoring comments? What’s wrong with “lauding” an article if you like it?

  14. Really interesting article – The author acknowledged that while the bartenders seemed personable and knowledgeable, their drinking affected their performance. That seems like an extremely fair assessment to me. And although I haven’t been there, it seems like a really cool place and I want to check it out.

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