“No, thank you. I don’t want any beer or tacos”—said no one, ever.
When word hit the riverfront that a modernized Mexican eatery was opening shop downtown, eyebrows hit the sky. I’ll admit: I was a tad skeptical the day their sign went up. With a handful of Mexican misses downtown, namely the previous restaurant in that very spot, I had high expectations for Beer Barrio to offer a whole lot more than Taco Tuesday. So I decided to go on a Monday.
With bottle shops and breweries popping off on every corner, owners chef Stephen Durley and beer sommelier Hayley Jensen knew they were in the right place at the right time when they chose Wilmington as their restaurant’s new home. The interior’s colorful barstools boast a hip vibe, along with a whimsical, oversized checkerboard mural that zips customers straight to Puerto Vallarta. I bellied up the bar and started browsing the draft selection. For someone who’s become a bit of a beer snob, the wide variety of frothy choices pleasantly surprised me.
Before I could finish the sentence, “Bring on the guac,” it arrived. At the time I was impressed by the speedy delivery, but realized it was a pre-emptive apology for the future hushpuppies that never arrived. But we’ll get to those later.
Guacamole only needs to be two things: salty and citrusy. While I do think BB’s could have been a bit heavier handed with both ingredients (also, where’s the cilantro?), the creamy dip still tasted balanced and refreshing. The homemade chips were light and airy, with a touch of salt. Hats off to the chef for stepping outside the pico-de-gallo comfort zone. The house salsa was a smooth, slightly sweet blended mix of tomatoes and what tasted like Fresno peppers—a chile with a mild spice and a fantastic fruity flavor. For those who need the heat, there’s plenty of hot sauce to go around.
After nearly 15 minutes of alone time with my guac, I began to wonder what happened to my other appetizer—when out came the tacos. As it turns out, the kitchen burned the first batch of pups and was cranking out another. Here’s the good news: Jensen herself took responsibility and let me know my first course would no longer be first; she immediately took it off my bill. Major props for customer service, BB.
I recently dined at another establishment and was jaded by kitchen mishaps (uncooked chicken and two meals arriving late). My friends and I practically had to scream “salmonella” to get a manager to care. That being said, Jensen handled this situation like a pro. As diners, we get it: Shit happens. As long as you don’t BS us and you treat us with respect, we will probably see you again next weekend.
The only glitch from this: I requested a beer pairing for the ‘puppies. By the time they arrived, my glass was half empty, and I was prepared to move along to the tacos. I pulled apart a still-hot fritter and examined its fluffy insides. Sweet, whole kernels of corn and a few green flecks of jalapeño popped. The malty, caramel notes of the Elliot Ness amber lager that Jensen recommended offered a sweet contrast to the spicy fritter. Between the fire from the chile and the light, herbaceous, creamy, housemade ranch served alongside, I only tasted a hint of catfish. To be honest, I was OK with that. It was the bold, flavorful heat of the fritters that made these a win.
I’m all for eclectic plating and presentation, but without successful execution, I’m left with pineapple juice on my shorts. Let me explain: I opted for a mix of tacos—one pulled pork, one fish and one tenderloin. Although the tequila-marinated chicken sounded up my alley, the local mahi and the AL pastor pork were brined in beer—and I wanted to take in all of the beer this place offered. The taco trio arrived in a stand, on top of a surprisingly small, thin plate made out of natural wood from a tree stump. Before I could drop the word “rustic” to my server, I looked down to find all three tacos relieving themselves on the bar. I certainly want my tacos overstuffed and juicy, but if I have to forfeit fillings to the tabletop, it’s kind of a lost cause. When it comes to plates: Size does matter. Sorry, BB, that was the biggest fail for me.
I transferred each taco onto a nearby plate and got down to chowing. The chef can go ahead and start practicing his “y’all,” because for a New Yorker, he certainly nailed Eastern Carolina BBQ. The house-smoked local pork was salty and tender, and the slaw was light and crunchy. The barbeque sauce was true Carolina style: vinegar-based with a nice balance of sweet and heat.
The grilled local fish taco featured beer-brined mahi mahi, lettuce, pico, and sour cream. Despite being lax on a bold flavor profile, the fish was nicely cooked and delivered a moist, flaky texture and a subtle hint of malty beer.
I have to point out, though, when a tortilla is missing a good crispy char, each taco bite lacks its crispy-crackly goodness. Unfortunately, the pulled pork and fish tacos failed in this department. Call me an optimist, but I’m hoping it was a one-time kitchen misstep and not something that happens on the reg.
I saved the AL pastor for last. The outside of this taco did bear those golden brown bubbles and the inside was packed with beer-brined grilled pork tenderloin, queso fresco and pineapple. Pork tenderloin typically isn’t my thing, so given that this was the highlight of my meal, you can imagine it was a righteous piece of meat. Each bite melted in my mouth with tender, rich flavor and the briny, salty cheese offset the sugary pineapple. A vibrant sprig of green cilantro, however, would have made the presentation a bit more energetic.
I asked Jensen for a second brew to match the pork, and she suggested Natty Greene’s Smoked IPA. When it comes to beer, Jensen knows what’s up. She scored two points: one for endorsing local and another for suggesting a damn good pairing. The woody fruit flavor in the brew brought out the gentle smoky notes of the meat.
All in all, Beer Barrio has stellar potential as an addition to downtown’s developing food scene. Between the margaritas on tap, extensive list of craft beers, and a thoughtfully put-together menu, they’ve got the framework down. They just need to refine and reorganize a few pieces of the puzzle. With creative minds Stephen Durley and Hayley Jensen at the helm of this taco trip, I’d say we’re all on our way to one hell of a delicious Mexi-coma.