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DINING: Bar should be set a little higher on promising new taqueria

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Dining - A&E

There are a thousand details to deal with when opening a restaurant and a few hundred of them don’t have anything to do with food. There’s no set formula for the alchemy of atmosphere, attitude and eats—each new establishment has to figure that out for itself.

I hope time and smart management help fine-tune those elements at BarRio Taco & Tequila Bar (3855 E. 96th St., 218-3186), a promising spot where the elements are in play but the recipe doesn’t quite work yet.
 

ae-diningbarrio-15col.jpg The festive interior of BarRio. (IBJ Photo/ Eric Lerned)

During the dinner hour when we visited, a staffer inexplicably offered two two-top tables to our party of four instead of any of the many larger tables. Festive decorations, rather than adding playful atmosphere, stood out artificially instead of organically in overly bright lighting—including one light shining awkwardly in my face. And the duo on stage, while talented, didn’t have much presence.

Still, I found myself rooting for the latest tenant in what used to be Daddy Real’s The Place.

We opened the jovially served meal with a Flight of Salsa ($6), the remains of which proved useful throughout the meal. The flight comes with Rojo, Verde, Mango and BarRio’s signature fire-roasted tomato. Our foursome was all over the board in voting for our favorites. Your mileage, too, may vary.

The menu is dominated by tacos, plated in twos and threes. The Baja ($8/$10) let the lightly batter-fried Mahi Mahi control the flavor over the fresh mango pineapple salsa. The Carnitas ($8/$10) behaved similarly, with pickled red onion and salsa verde accenting but not overwhelming the slow-cooked pork. The Chorizo ($9/$11) was a bit less effective, with the sausage lacking defining flavor. All were served in double white corn tortillas and all were more satisfying—if a bit sloppier—once we removed the outer shell.

Our server had assured us that the Quesadilla ($10, with a choice of marinated skirt steak, grilled chicken or char-grilled veggies) came with a dollop of guac at its center, so we didn’t order it separately. Surprise: no such addition, although the Quesadilla was just fine.

For dessert, we were told the excessively popular Peanut Butter Banana Changa ($4)—a deep-fried, cinnamon-sugared, tortilla-wrapped banana with cayenne chocolate sauce—was a sellout. Plan B meant less dramatic but happily devoured Churro Bites ($6) coated in cinnamon and sugar and served with that same chocolate cayenne dipping sauce.

BarRio offers Poker & Jazz on Sunday, $3 margaritas and karaoke on Monday, Service Industry night on Thursday, and more events throughout the week. That programming energy is to be applauded. Too few eateries offer live entertainment and encourage playful connections between patrons.

Now about the cardboard George Clooney on the stage …•

—Lou Harry

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  • tequilla
    We hope they make it! something "different" is refreshing - We echo the review - but are HOPEFUL?? I will take the comments one step farther: If you are going to have "tequila bar" in your name - the servers need to KNOW what you offer and have a WIDE selection of tequila! not just George Clooney/Randy Gerber offering - infused tequila? Really? With all the brew pubs popping up and great staff at those watering holes, BarRio needs to step it up! My Bride an I were looking forward to an education - not an after thought which our girl did not know what was available. I was really hoping for a "flight" of tequilas when I saw the Flight of salsas (which were good!) DON'T MISS THE MARK ! FOCUS!!
  • Not a good first experience!
    My husband and I ventured there purposefully as we want to try the new place! It was unfortunately a not-so-good experience. It took 40 minutes to get our food (tacos). It was cold and my husband ordered 3 but got 2. You have to order at least 2 of the same taco. You cannot mix and match to try the beef, fish or chicken tacos. The wait staff is young and inexperienced. Hope they can get it together too! We do not plan to go back anytime soon.

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