When Belle was invited to the press launch of Barrio East – the third addition to a collection of Latin ‘cantinas’ across the capital, we were left wanting more. The explosion of colours, quirkily designed booths and energetic carnival dancers were such a pleasant shock to the system on a chilly London evening. It was enough to convince us to go back.
The cocktail list was enough of an enticement in itself. It’s split into three sections; ‘Greatest Hits’, ‘Barrio Remixes’ and ‘New Releases’. And with exciting concoctions like ‘Gingerbread Colada’, ‘Ram Berry Jam’ and ‘Tropic Plunder’ we were intrigued. Did we mention the very aptly-named ‘Southern Belle’? Do you think they were trying to lure us in?
Well it worked. We went back to check out the dance venue and bar on a jam-packed Friday night, to try out their food menu and see if their tempting collection of premium rums and tequilas are great as they appeared.
Seated on big leather armchairs in the bustling ‘Uptown’ bar, we were surrounded by a themed wall crammed with blue wooden shutters and a room full of weekend revellers, excitedly chinking glasses.
Our cheery waiter brought us a classic Mojito and a very predictable Margarita (It would be rude not to). We perused the menu – a collection of nachos, tacos and fundidos. There didn’t seem to be many dishes that didn’t end in ‘o’. But more striking, was that the theme here is all about sharing. Most of the dishes are cheap as chips, starting from £3. The most pricy is the Taquiza platter (£25) – a ‘familia’-sized plate of tacos, taquitos and home-made salsa. We went for six small plates known as ‘Antojitos’. Our waiter’s first challenge was fitting them all onto our very novel but tiny ‘chessboard-topped’ table. So we suggested they staggered them and we grazed on a number of courses.
Each came presented in a brightly coloured plastic dish lined with paper. The Patatas Bravas could have been a delight if they hadn’t been so seeped in garlic. The over-generous helping of mayonnaise that was squirted across the whole plate was off putting too.
The Calamari de Cuba was a little under cooked – we’d hoped for a slightly crispier coating, but the fish itself was tasty and came with a subtle chilli mayonnaise.
Barrio claims the sauce on the Baby Back ribs is a special homemade recipe of agave syrup, lime and adobo chilli. It was sweet and sticky and a nice change from the usual BBQ sauce you’d get in most places. The nachos were pretty good – helped by the chicken topping which gave the guacamole, mayo and salsa a bit more pizzazz.
But our favourites were most definitely the ‘Ceviche Margarita’ – four shot glasses filled with sea bass cubes, marinated in lime juice, tequila and ginger. It was only fractionally more expensive than the others, but was delightfully light and refreshing and full of flavours from the chopped tomato, spring onions, yellow chilli and basil. My mind was already working out how I could replicate this as a great party amuse bouche.
Equally, the Camarones con Coco were delicious – five butterfly king prawns, served with a mango salsa. The coconut-bread coating combined with the juiciness of the prawn and the tanginess of the salsa is what makes these so special. Again, it was a quick bite that any hostess could use to liven up a party.
After just a few weeks of their grand opening, it was clear that Barrio is the place to be on a Friday night. The exposed brick walls and House of Hackney wallpaper contrasted with the timber-stacked alcoves, huge light installations and beautifully tiled bars.
Before we knew it, we’d been lured in by the sumptuous cocktail menu. Several French Martinis later, we left the party-goers to dance until the early hours on the venue’s Downtown dance floor.
It’s clearly not the place for fine dining, or a meal in the traditional sense. But it’s novel and oozes Latin-inspired fun. You won’t need directions, just look for the most brightly coloured venue on Shoreditch High Street. And if you can, make sure you sit inside the 1960s converted ‘Sprite’ caravan which overlooks the dance floor. We dare you to find a quirkier venue this side of London.
Barrio East, 141-143 Shoreditch High Street, London, 0203 230 1002
by Lucy McGuire