Mexican grub can be as easy to sell to kids as Italian. Most children will happily chow pizza and spaghetti or tacos and nachos. iCarly went one step further by creating spaghetti tacos – fusion cuisine, in the eyes of a teen.
But let's get back to the border – and Barrio Tacos & Tequila in Birmingham. This new spot, next to the Palladium 12, offers fresh and interesting Mexican cuisine. Granted, a glance at its Tex-Mex menu may at first seem almost inaccessible for parents, let alone kids. But don't worry. I'm here to demystify Barrio's fare and show you why it's prime family dining.
Barrio is a tequila bar and restaurant, so I wouldn't recommend bringing the kids after 9 p.m. (no problem, right?). There are spacious, circular booths that my 4 year old navigated easily. We were comfortable without an inkling of feeling rushed.
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So yes: They do stock plenty of tequila, plus Mexican beer and most other spirits. But that wasn't at the top of my list, because there is a fascinating non-alcoholic beverage called agua fresca, or flavored water. Kids might like these, too, but the one I sampled has cucumber, jalapeno, lime, cilantro and mint. Agua fresca de pepino is refreshing with a perfect balance of spicy jalapeno and cool cucumber. The strawberry and watermelon versions are probably more kid friendly, unless your tyke's a pepper head.
Seems like every other parent I speak to swears by avocado. By extension, guacamole – avocado blended until smooth with lime, garlic, cilantro, and (sometimes) chilis – should be a slam-dunk.
And Barrio offers three choices: traditional, cucumber, and mango. Order carefully on the latter: There's habanero in the mango, too. When dining with the kids, I recommend the traditional, sans chilis – or cucumber, light on serranos, is milder choice, hand made to order. Like heat? There are two house made sauces on the table – red and green – so you can have some kick while sparing the kids.
Queso fundido is chihuahua cheese baked in a brick oven until golden brown and gooey. Served with flour tortillas, one queso is enough for a family of four to share before your main course. Chorizo verde has luscious chunks of Barrio's house-made chorizo and chunks of mildly spicy poblano peppers. From a dad who's always concerned with spice: Kids can enjoy this, but if you have any doubt, order the traditional, no worries.
The main menu
Essentially a grilled cheese, quesadillas are both comforting to kids and a little outside the norm. Barrio's version is filled with that same chihuahua. Two kids could share the large four-piece plate that comes with crema and fresh-made pico de gallo. For a nominal extra charge, you can add a protein, too. My kids gravitate toward chicken, which is grilled and gently spiced.
Still hungry, parents? Barrio's got a number of options that can be shared between two. Tacos are a good place to start. Each order includes three good-sized tacos. Fillings vary from mushroom to chicken to fish to beef, all prepared in-house.
For a different zing, try zacatecas mole verde, chile verde beef brisket, roasted corn-pasilla salsa, crema and queso chihuahua, all stuffed into a flour tortilla. Taco purists may call foul to the addition of cheese, but it's a fine compliment here. Brisket lends a beefiness missing from most conventional ground beef tacos. It's a milder dish, so I suggest using some of the hot sauce on the table for extra oomph.
Why not go all out and try a couple side dishes? My daughter loves elote mexicano (grilled corn "street style" with lime, chile, and queso cotija). Grilled corn has the sweet, charred thing going on. Not overly sweet, but perfectly cooked, it's perfect alongside some of the spicier dishes. And don't miss out on the frijoles negro: slow-cooked black beans topped with pico de gallo and queso fresco. Rustic and simple, black beans are an essential side dish that pair perfectly with nearly anything on the Barrio menu.
Sure, Mexican food isn't the most exotic ethnic cuisine. But there are definitely different flavors than the usual grilled cheese or chicken nuggets. A little guacamole, a few tacos, a quesadilla and maybe some flan for dessert, and you have a pretty easy-on-the-palate Mexican feast perfect for the entire family. Now, pass the chips and salsa, please!