A taco is pretty much a taco at heart, in various configurations of hard or soft shell, meats, salsa and veggies. Unless you’re enjoying a Barrio Fresca Cocina Mexicana taco, in which case, it’s a work of art. Really. I’ve never seen such an elaborate and beautiful taco as the one crafted by the cooks at this new cantina at Sebastopol’s Barlow.
The beauty begins with the chewy tortillas, homemade from GMO-free California corn masa, and griddled to order on the plancha. You can get different colors, like classic yellow, green (spinach infused) red (chile California) or black (salsa de chile seco).
Next is the meat, sourced from ranchers within 45 miles from the restaurant. You choose from robustly seasoned carnitas, carne asada or chicken, and I recommend trying them all to determine your favorite. I usually gobble carnitas, for example, and the version here is superb, pulled in thick, succulent knobs. Chicken is another personal favorite, and Barrio’s spicy red achiote shredded bird does not disappoint. I can usually give-or-take carne asada, meanwhile, and the version here comes in small chunks that are more crumbly than crisp-tender.
As generously portioned as the meat is, you won’t see it until you deconstruct your taco. The things are showered –– nearly buried –– in a gorgeous tumble of microgreens, arugula, citrus pickled onions, and lots of lacy edible flowers colored deep purple, yellow and orange. If you order the Dos Tacos ($11, yellow tortilla) you’ll also find silky swaths of chipotle aioli and glistening pico de gallo peeking through. If you order the Oso Manoso ($12, black tortilla), you’ll find melted curd cheese and Mexican chimichurri atop your carne asada.
Honestly, at first bite, I was overwhelmed by the commotion and busy flavors. And forget about picking up these tacos without making a mess. But then, the complexity became brilliant. The big portions and bold flavors mean a filling feast, rounded out with complimentary crispy tortilla chips and fiery red and green salsas.
Such sophistication might seem odd for the setting, given that Barrio is a cubby-sized space in the open air Barlow culinary and arts center. We order at the counter, watch cooks assemble our meals onto paper plates, and then eat on the dog friendly, tree-shaded patio or at a long, raw-wood bar just outside the roll-down kitchen door. It’s true that I once considered canceling a visit here because rainy weather and no indoor seating is an awkward combination. But then, it hit me: That’s why God invented to-go orders, isn’t it?
And owner Carlos Rosas is used to operating in bare-bones surrounds. Five years ago, he got his start with his Barrio Contemporary Mexican Cocina pop-up booth at Marin Civic Center’s Farmer’s Market in San Rafael. And although his recipes are inspired by street food from his tiny hometown near Mexico City, he knows style. For a decade, he worked as chef and in management at notable Bay Area eateries such as Cavallo Point, Jardinière, Boulevard, Zuni, Lark Creek Inn and Slanted Door.
So I feel absolutely spoiled now, relaxing on a metal patio chair on a sunny day and devouring a green tortilla quesadilla stuffed with juicy mushrooms, potatoes, melted curd cheese and wild arugula for a bargain $11. I’m sipping an icy Mexican Coca-Cola straight from the bottle, and sharing a black rice plate with a friend, the grains imbued with salsa de chile seco and topped in carnitas, peppers and micro greens ($12). She’s got a Torta el Chavo, the torpedo shaped bolillo bread plump with rich pork belly, chipotle aioli, pico de gallo and arugula ($12), and life is grand.