Before opening Barrio Café 14 years ago, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza set out on an odyssey throughout southern Mexico. For two years, she rode abus through tiny villages, mid-size towns and big cities to meet and learn from the people who cooked the food of her cultural heritage. The flavors and techniques she discovered along the way shaped her approach to Mexican cuisine.
“Once you’re sitting on an upside-down, five-gallon bucket eating a tortilla with chicharon—and you’ve never tasted anything like this in your life—in some remote place where people don’t even speak Spanish (they speak Nahuatl), then your life changes right at that moment and you will never be the same. And that’s what happened to me,” she recalls.
In 2002, Esparza opened Barrio Café, bringing to the table her personal interpretation of traditional recipes from the Yucatan, Oaxaca and Mexico City. Drawing on her training as a classical chef and her upbringing as a baker’s daughter, she sought to change people’s perception of Mexican food by cooking dishes from Mexico’s many regions.
“Mexico is as broad and diverse as its beaches,” says Esparza, who also owns Barrio Café Urbano and the forthcoming Barrio Café Gran Reserva. “Its cuisine is diverse and the only thing that is consistent throughout is the use of chile and the tortilla. Other than that, it’s regional.”
For starters, Barrio Café serves Guacamole Barrio prepared tableside with fresh tomatoes, jalapeno, cilantro, lime, a sprinkling of salt and fresh-cracked pepper, all topped with pomegranate seeds.
“When I started Barrio Café, I wanted to create something that wasn’t the typical guacamole, the mashed version that we all know,” Esparza says. “I really love the flavor of the avocado before it gets mashed. We cube it, we don’t mash it. We toss the ingredients and then we finish with pomegranate. It creates a dynamic that has become my signature.”
Striving to broaden people’s concept of Mexican food (she veers away from yellow cheese, chimichangas, fried ice cream, chips and salsa), Esparza fuels her menu with one-of-a-kind dishes from southern Mexico. Her signature entrée Cochinita Pibil is a slow-roasted pork served on banana leaves, and accented with sour orange and achiote rojo, a vivid, clay-colored spice made from the tropical annatto seed. The dish is served with pickled red onions, warm corn tortillas and salsa.
“Cochinita Pibil is a dish that is Mayan in origin and is known in the southern part of Yucatan. It is unreal,” says Esparza.
Her Chiles en Nogada features poblano peppers stuffed with chicken, pears, apples, apricots, cranberries and raisins, served in a cool, cream-based almond sauce and garnished with cilantro and pomegranate seeds.
“This is a celebration dish in honor of Mexican independence from Spain,” she says.
No entrée is complete without Esparza’s flan, chocolate cake or her well-known Churros Rellenos De Cajeta. These delicious fritters are stuffed with goat’s milk caramel and served with vanilla bean ice cream.
In addition to Mexican wines and beers, and the house made horchata, Barrio Café offers 300 tequila selections, each handpicked by Esparza.
2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix
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