Occasionally a restaurant in Portsmouth evolves from a brick-and-mortar dining establishment to an integral member of the community, providing patrons with a place to not just meet, but to feel a sense of belonging. Typically, it takes time for a restaurant to take root like that. Regulars start to see that their favorite eatery and/or watering hole is not just attracting like-minded palates, or fellow sports enthusiasts to watch the Patriots, but is catering to their ideal of who they are, what they want, and the vibe they choose to hang in.
Barrio, a taco eatery at 3S Artspace, opened its doors in Portsmouth on June 18 and was embraced con rapidez by the community. Waits at dinner and before shows at adjacent 3S were the norm all summer. This wasn’t summer’s influx of tourists waiting. These were people who live and/or work in Portsmouth’s orbit. In a city that is no stranger to restaurant openings, this was striking. Lots of residents spend much of the summer avoiding the mayhem of downtown Portsmouth.
It wasn’t that Portsmouth was hungry for tacos as much as we were hungry for a space that offered dynamic, fresh fare at affordable street food prices in a friendly space brimming with flair and enthusiasm. Co-owner Maggie Osborn says the average customer eats there twice a week. Barrio, from day one, has been welcoming, lively, cheap and, though it was designed to appeal to Millennials, attracts people from every age group, every economic stratum, and from a variety of family backgrounds. On frequent visits I saw people who knew Portsmouth long before its residential and commercial renaissance, and those who know the city only as it is now. The assistant mayor is there multiple nights a week, as are recent UNH grads. Families with kids come in for early dinners and take-out, and service industry workers flock to the late-night happy hour. It’s as if Barrio was a missing piece in the blueprint of what we wanted in our community – a moderately-priced, easy-going neighborhood bar and eatery with finesse.
Barrio has become a place I go to regularly. Because of its symbiotic relationship with 3S Artspace, where I often attend shows, it is part of my community. Barrio is my Portsmouth 2.0 version of Cheers. In that sense, this is an unusual review. The disarming, blue-haired server with bright red lipstick there is taking off for a vacation in Paris with my niece in the spring. My daughter worked the hostess station over the summer before heading off to college. I was the first patron to set foot in the restaurant when it opened to the public because it was my birthday and I wanted to celebrate with my dear friend tequila. In a city this small, and a community this tight, relationships like this evolve and I want to be transparent. However, even though this is not a detached review, it is honest. So let’s dig in.
Consider Barrio a taco-building empire. If you can dream it, they will build it for less than you pay for parking across the street. If you are like me and, in a pre-Barrio lifetime, failed to imagine a taco with tender threads of braised short rib, thick cut bacon, pan-seared portabello mushrooms, black beans, cilantro-lime rice, mild Chihuahua white cheese, picante Salsa Roja, caramelized onions and poblanos, in a house-made warm, yellow corn shell finished with a snap of mild, garlicky cilantro pesto, then know that Barrio will build you a taco beyond your wildest dreams. And that this short-rib colossus will only cost you $4.
I love Portsmouth, but the restaurants here have left me with a severe case of white-linen fatigue from shelling out $100 or more for a dinner for two. Barrio is a panacea for that.
Offering lunch, dinner, happy hours and brunch on the northern outskirts of the city’s downtown, Barrio is an integral part of 3S Artspace’s grand scheme. 3S stands for three spaces: a performance venue, an art gallery and a restaurant. The restaurant is leased out by The Powers That Be at 3S and Barrio is owned by Portsmouth residents Maggie and Dan Osborn. Maggie, a warm-hearted, outgoing host, is there regularly, working behind the scenes and checking in with guests. This is the sixth Barrio her family has opened; the other five are in Ohio.
Barrio’s menu includes sides of salsas, queso (creamy Mexican white cheese), guacamoles, rice, pickled jalapenos, black beans and nachos as well as monthly taco specials.
November’s was a Turducken Taco, $6.50, with roasted turkey, duck bacon, chicken gravy, cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce in an au gratin shell – that is a double-wall comprised of a soft flour and hard corn shell padded with cheesy potatoes.
December’s is a Surf & Turf Taco, $6.50, with cola-marinated steak, fried wild Gulf shrimp, cheesy potatoes and grilled asparagus topped with Béarnaise sauce.
The restaurant layout is open, bright and artsy. A black and white mural, painted by Osborn family friend Michael “Mac” McNamara and inhabited with Day of the Dead figures, drapes all the walls, telling a story that celebrates family, love and community. Bar shelves, light fixtures and menu caddies are made of repurposed metalwork.
Rolls of paper towels adorn turquoise tables – ammo to battle messy tacos. Utensils are bête noire at Barrio, except at brunch. If you skip a taco shell and have your fixings served in a bowl, which adds $1 to the tab, you will get a plastic spork. Tacos are served in biodegradable cardboard boats. Straws are not given with drinks, unless requested. (I now tote my own washable, metal straw around. Picked it up at the Portsmouth Brewery shop for $2.)
In the high-decibel main room vast glass garage doors open to a patio during nice weather. Along with traditional seating, there are high tables to perch at, some banquettes for lounging back on in one corner and a bar in the other where you can drown yourself in good tequila and whiskey.
But the devil you want to dance with here is in the taco-building. There are seemingly infinite combinations, including vegan, and gluten-free options, to cook up from a scantron-style menu that looks like a multiple choice test for taco-lovers. Patrons mix and match taco shell types, proteins, toppings and an array of boisterous sauces and salsas to craft their personal version of a taco masterpiece.
Those who do not want to concoct their own can choose from El Jefe’s Selecciones, devised by Barrio’s head chef Nico Chesnick. This is where I started on my maiden voyage to Barrio and where I return to time and again, thanks to the exotic flavor burst of the Camarone Agrietado, $4.50, where shrimp, with a jolt of jalapeno and lime, is wrapped in a warm, pliable flour shell with cilantro rice, crunchy napa slaw and Barrio’s refreshing “crack sauce,” with buttermilk and Sriracha.
Meat-eaters will be intrigued by the hearty La Tierra, $5, a double-walled powerhouse with creamy queso and thick crumbled bacon cushioning the soft flour and hard corn shell combo. Inside, cola-marinated steak, mushrooms, sweet onions, and mild peppers are bathed in an alluring dressing of cilantro aioli and Barrio’s secret sauce.
Single tacos from the build-your-own menu are $3 a pop. You can choose as many fillings as you’d like from all categories for no additional charge, except for proteins and a few of the shells. Add-ons are usually $1, a splurge worth indulging in, especially in cases like the double-walled Green Goddess with velvety queso and guacamole sandwiched between the shells. I added juicy braised short-rib - which had simmered for six hours with carrots, onion, and peppers - as a protein. Its tender, savory presence held up under the tangy/sweet hit of pineapple salsa and layers of topping I had heaped on. And heap you should. A thin taco is like Skinny Santa. It’s just wrong.
All the yellow corn shells and chips, sauces, guacamoles and salsas are made in-house.
One of my dinner guests, who has a Hispanic background and grew up with real-deal Mexican food, dug into Barrio’s sultry house salsa and said it was so good, he would drink it if he could.
He was also a fan of the smooth, traditional guacamole, $6, with mild underpinnings of pureed garlic, lime, cilantro, and just a hint of jalapeno. I preferred the more dynamic Tuscan guacamole, $7, with chevre/goat cheese, basil, balsamic, crushed pine nuts, artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes.
Barrio adds a guacamole special each month, bringing creativity and variety to its hyper-focused menu. For December, it is a shrimp cocktail guac with horseradish, tomato relish and a hint of lemon for $8.
The humble black beans side dish, $1.50, is soothing and rich.
The Ballpark Nachos are anything but. Barrio’s rousing and fresh approach, for $7, finds warm layers of crispy corn chips topped with fresh tomatoes, shredded chicken, corn, pico de gallo, pesto, crack sauce, and queso combining to deliver a mild kiss of heat and salt.
While I found the food consistently good, I had a hard time with the cocktails. This makes no sense at all for one reason – both Barrio and I are committed to tequila. Tequila and whiskey get top billing on the restaurant’s logo and the bar is packed with plenty of options in both departments. I have been a tequila fan since I was old enough to drink. In college, I was given the unfortunate moniker “Tequila Wheela.” My home and Barrio share the same house tequila, El Jimador Reposado. Yet, as I embarked on a journey through Barrio’s cocktail list, I consistently found a sweetness that got cloying by each drink’s end. I was not alone in this response. One of my companions will no longer join me at the Barrio bar because of this. Another has given up on cocktails there and opts for a tequila shot and a beer.
The fresh fruit purees added to cocktails are made in-house. Perhaps a lighter touch on added sweeteners could be in order. After multiple visits, and thanks to my bar Sherpa/server Holly, I found a tequila cocktail that suited my palette, The Low Rider. Barrio’s take on this is a straightforward blend of tequila and lime juice with a little heat. If they are mixing it up like I do at home, they are adding Ancho Reyes Chilie Liquor to give it that subtle burn.
Beverages at Sunday brunch, new as of last month, were not a problem. The Bloody Maria is like a kind, gentle Sunday wake-up alarm, bracing but balanced, in a tall glass with a salt-and-spice-crusted rim and two shining, plump green olives stuffed with cream cheese teetering on a toothpick below an arch of crispy, thick bacon. There are multiple purees to choose from to add to mimosas. We went with blood orange with the perfect touch of tang to temper the champagne’s sweet punch.
There are 14 beers on draft and 20 in bottles in cans. And for a unique touch, bar manager Jonathon “Jay” Drinker (yes, that’s the bar manager’s last name) recently pointed out that Jameson Irish Whiskey is on tap.
Service over the summer was spotty. Often the restaurant was so crowded, it appeared the staff was spread too thin, especially at the bar. Now opened for six months, Barrio seems on firmer footing. During multiple visits, bartenders were keeping pace, servers were enthusiastic and mostly prompt and attentive. Maggie Osborne has said one her goals for Barrio is that patrons have fun there. She encourages servers to interact with guests, and they do. The unpretentious staff is a breathe of fresh air.
Brunch is new and the bowls I sampled were delicious. The hearty jalapeno and smoked cheddar biscuits with gravy, $7, are a piquant delight, but please chef, don’t be stingy with that lush chorizo gravy. Mine was gone before I was half-way through my second biscuit. The French toast, $7, is light and fluffy, topped with a blackberry caramel spread that is swoon-worthy.
My reviewing partners at Access Navigators describe Barrio as a win for people who use wheelchairs. The restaurant is entirely accommodating, as is the rest of 3S Artspace, though it should be noted, you have to leave the restaurant and go into a central area of the complex to use the restrooms.
The restaurant offers takeout and event catering.
Barrio is located at 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. It is open Monday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. For takeout, call (603) 380-9081. Late night happy hour for service industry employees is from 9 to 11 p.m. each night, and Monday is service industry night with happy hour prices all evening. For more information, visit http://barrio-tacos.com/