El Barrio Restaurante Latino

Restaurant: El Barrio Restaurante Latino
Cuisine: Latin American/Mexican/Spanish
Last visited: March 5, 2011
Location: Vancouver, BC (Commercial Drive/Grandview)
Address: 2270 E Hastings St
Price Range: $10-20, $20-30

1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!

Food: 4.5 (based on what I tried)
Service: n/a
Ambiance: 4.5
Overall: 4.5
Additional comments:

  • Locally owned
  • Latin/Spanish/Mexican cuisine
  • Latin owner/chef
  • Authentic, and fusion items
  • Contemporary style
  • Busy/popular to locals
  • Home made sauces/spice blends
  • Paella needs to be ordered in advance
  • Cocktails/wine/beer
  • House made desserts
  • Moderately priced
  • Vegetarian options
  • Gluten free options
  • Live entertainment
  • Tues – Wed 4pm – 10pm
  • Thurs – Fri 4pm – 11pm
  • Saturday 12pm – 11pm
  • Sunday 12pm – 9pm

**Recommendations: Tostada Carnitas, Chorizo tacos with homemade chipotle sauce and guacamole, and Pollo En Mole. The desserts are pricey, but the Tres Leches Cake and Flourless Chocolate Chili Cake are very good.

From the outside, it doesn’t look impressive. In fact, it almost looks a bit divey, but let me just say this is a hidden gem and local favourite. It’s not even that hidden, but it’s definitely not that known unless you frequent the area or live in the neighbourhood. Give it a chance though and I almost guarantee you’ll come back for seconds sooner then you think.

It’s a casual, spacious and modern bar that can be quite energetic and entertaining with live music on occasional nights. It’s opened by Chef Luis Montalvo who grew up in El Salvador, but also lived in Mexico. Therefore the food here incorporates Spanish, Latin and Mexican flavours. It’s traditional in offerings and ingredients, but modern in execution.

I keep going back to the idea of authenticity, but to be honest you can only get so authentic without going to the actual country and having the food there. Even so, I’ve had bad Mexican food in Mexico, so it just depends on where you go. Sourcing authentic ingredients can also be a challenge, so I won’t stress about authenticity.

On the other hand, I didn’t find the cuisine at El Barrio really authentic to any of the cuisines it serves because everything was so unique and stylized. It was in a cateogry of its own, which is what may be determined as “fusion”. However, there is respect to ingredients and techniques and the restaurant is quite original to the Vancouver culinary scene. I found it more Mexican than I did Latin, although “Latin” is a big enough category on its own that it still varies from country to county. Nonetheless I’ve never been to Latin America, so I’m basing it in the context of Vancouver and Vancouver standards.

On this occasion I came to tackle the menu with Sherman, whom I thank for the photos as well. We had recently tried Mochika’s Peruvian Cafe, an amazing hole in the wall serving Peruvian food, so we wanted to explore more within the theme. Latin and Mexican restaurants are limited in Vancouver since we don’t have the population. Consequently the cuisine for it isn’t known to be great either. So I put myself up for some foodie research hoping to trump my own assumptions.

I know there are folks that don’t see the value in expensive Mexican food, and I feel the same way about Vietnamese food; however what you’re getting at El Barrio is finer than the usual for this type of cuisine. Part of this meal was comped, but as a paying customer I could see that a couple dishes were overpriced. On the other hand you are paying for home made sauces and quality ingredients which manages to come with an unpretentious atmosphere and service.

So was I impressed with El Barrio Restaurante Latino? Let me just say, that I’ve already made reservations to go back!

On the table:

Sangria 3/6

  • Glass $6.95 Pitcher $22.95
  • For a sangria is was lacking a bit of depth for me. It had some lemons and limes, but I missed the apples and oranges and all the other fun fruits that go into it.
  • It was good, not too sweet, but quite standard with a very basic recipe and wine that was on the dry side.

**Tostada Carnitas6/6

  • Deep fried corn tortilla layered with creamy beans, pulled pork and curdito $10.95
  • This was freaking delicious and my favourite dish of the night. I’d be completely satisfied having 2 orders of these as a main!
  • This will be available on their spring menu, however at the moment it’s available in soft taco form.
  • It was a crunchy and crispy deep fried tortilla loaded with a generous amount of soft, juicy, smoky, savoury and well marinated pork. It was topped with a crunchy pickled red and green cabbage slaw (curdito) that carried quite the refreshing yet sharp vinegar tang which cut the grease from the pork.
  • It was savoury and tangy and slightly sweet and smoky from the layer of creamy beans which also kept the crispy deep fried tortilla from being soggy.
  • There was also some pickled jalapeno peppers in the curdito that brought a very mild heat at the end.
  • Carnitas is a Mexican style pulled pork and this one was so tender, moist and soaking in its own natural pork juice. Traditionally it’s braised and fried, but this one just seemed braised, but regardless it was all delicious!
  • The carnitas meat here is wrapped in a banana leaf and marinated overnight for 10-12 hours in spices and orange juice.
  • It was nicely braised and chunky, yet easily shred and well flavoured with smokiness from ground cumin, slight acidity from some tomato sauce and also the orange juice. It had a natural sweetness from perhaps some natural aromatics of carrots, onions and celery, although they were not seen, but I’m guessing.
  • The flavours of the spices and aromatics just infused into every crevice of the meat.
  • It was very well balanced and naturally saucy alone, but it did come with a side of home made hot sauce. the hot sauce was quite mild, very smoky and it tasted like a tomato based chili sauce with a bit of red pepper flavour in the background.
  • Carnitas is my favourite meat for ataco and this was definitely Follow Me Foodie approved!

**Chorizo Tacos 5/6

  • Choice of beef, chicken, carnitas or home made chorizo, served on corn tortillas with onions and cilantro $9.95
  • These were delicious! I’ve never had chorizo in this texture and I usually have it in cured sausage form.
  • The chorizo was so finely grounded and almost nutty and the flavour was so bold, earthy, deep and complex. I could tastes smokiness from cumin and paprika and it was a bit sweet from perhaps some carrots used in the aromatics.
  • It was extremely well seasoned and marinated, nice and garlicky, saucy, moist, with a nice heat to follow and almost like a Mexican sloppy joe in taco form.
  • I loved the brightness of the lime juice and onions which helped to cut through the smokiness.
  • Follow Me Foodie Tasty Twist: I’d highly recommend you to order these with their homemade chipotle sauce and guacamole. Sherman discovered the chipotle sauce combo, which was delish and I drummed up the guacamole idea.

Plantains 3.5/6

  • Available on Spring ’11 menu.
  • Crisp plantains served with homemade garlic aioli and home made chipotle sauce ($9.95 I think)
  • I can’t say I’m a huge fan of plantains, a popular Latin appetizer or side. It’s just a deep fried starchy and fiberous unsweetened banana that’s similar to a potato.
  • For what it was, it was great, but for me it’s 3.5/6, because I’m not crazy about them.
  • These ones were quite dense, well fried, crispy and crunchy with a naturally drier inside, but they were well prepared.
  • What made these plantains delicious and different than all other plantains was the chipotle sauce, which was AMAZING!
  • The chipotle sauce was so fresh, creamy and almost chunky. I was eating it by the spoonfuls as is.
  • It was sweet in the initial notes from freshly roasted red bell peppers and I think there was some tomato paste and limes which gave it a nice tang. I could really taste the freshness and it had a very flavourful heat to follow and was somewhat very refreshing at the same time. This with the guacamole would be insane.
  • The garlic aioli wasn’t anything particularly special although I could taste the slight garlic spice and roasted flavour. It was more tangy and it didn’t taste like a home made aioli even though it was.
  • Follow Me Foodie Tasty Twist: I recommend mixing the homemade garlic aioli with the chipotle sauce to give it double the flavour although the chipotle sauce is good enough on its own.

Flautas3/6

  • Three corn tortillas rolled and baked, stuffed with huitlacoche (corn truffle), spinach and corn. Topped with guacamole and served with curtido. $9.95
  • These reminded me of taquitos, without the cheese, or even Mexican style spring rolls with a crunchy baked corn tortilla.
  • It’s a very traditional Mexican dish, but it didn’t really do anything for me and I found they needed a lot more filling to be able to taste it.
  • The corn truffle is a Mexican delicacy and it’s actually the fungus that grows on the ears of corn. In this case it was probably canned since the fresh version is near impossible to get here. It was mixed with sweet corn kernels, but it tasted like an earthy and smoky black bean paste with corn and it was a bit dried out rather than creamy.
  • It seemed more deep fried and baked, although not greasy, and I find the filling especially overpowered when I ate it with the guacamole and pickled cabbage slaw salad (curtido).
  • The highlight was definitely the guacamole which was surprisingly very refreshing, zesty and almost very cooling. I think there’s sour cream mixed into it. There were no chunks of avocado and most of it was fresh tomato, onions, cilantro and fresh lime juice, but it was still great!
  • It was a very bright guacamole, and although creamy, it wasn’t rich. It tasted excellent, but then I’d rather order it separately.
  • The flautas were a bit like eating smoky, charcoal flavoured deep fried wonton wrappers with a damn good guacamole.

Pastel Azteca 3/6

  • Layers of tortillas, cheese, spinach, huitlacoche (corn truffle) with salsa verde, salsa roja, and crema fresca $15.25
  • This is an authentic Mexican casserole that is usually made with chicken. In this case it was vegetarian and it was a Mexican style vegetarian lasagne or casserole.
  • It’s pretty hefty, filling and the portion is quite large and it’s almost like a lasagne pie.
  • The 3 components were all great, but they were all starches so I could have used vegetables as one of the sides.
  • The side of house made refried black beans are amazing here! They’re ultra creamy and almost like a smoky sweet potato mash and there could have been more than black beans used.
  • The poblano pepper rice wasn’t particularly special or flavourful, but it does change on occasion to other types of Spanish or Mexican style rices.
  • This is my first time trying Pastel Azteca, so I have nothing to compare it too.

  • There was a lot of layers and tons of ingredients, but I found they all got very muddled together and I couldn’t taste each layer of ingredients.
  • I found the flavours actually quite one dimensional and the texture was very soft, creamy and almost sponge like throughout and at times a bit soggy.
  • The tortillas were soft and then the bottom layer I think was a Cotija cheese that was mild and spongy, like ricotta meets tofu.
  • I didn’t get much spinach flavour as I did flavours and textures of sauteed green leaf lettuce and maybe even romaine.
  • There was some of that corn truffle again which tastes like black bean paste and corn, but the sweetness of the corn kernels got lost for me.
  • It was quite creamy and it’s not that cheesy and I needed more crema fresca (sour cream) for more tang. I wouldn’t have minded a chunkier salsa verde and salsa roja as well, but overall I found it a bit mild in flavours and it was bit like eating a casserole of sauces and condiments.

**Pollo En Mole 5.5/6

  • Local free range chicken breast served with a blend of Mexican chilies chocolate sauce $15.95
  • It was half a bone in chicken and I wish it didn’t come precut. I think it needed to rest a bit more before being cut because the meat wasn’t as moist as it could have been.
  • The skin had a smoky dry rub and it’s not crispy, but when it’s covered with rich and decadent mole sauce you really barely notice it.
  • The mole sauce was intense and it’s made in house with 18-19 ingredients.
  • The mole was one of the best mole sauces I’ve come across, and it had to do with complex deep flavours as well as the creamy rich texture it had.
  • It was thick and creamy and almost paste like and I could taste the texture of the house roasted chilies in combination with fresh spices such as cumin and cinnamon.
  • It was bitter sweet with sweet chocolate flavour in the initial notes and then an earthy, deep and slightly bitter flavour at the end. It was smoky and it tastes like there’s some espresso rub, but there wasn’t.
  • The sauce was also nutty and there must have been either/and/or ground sesame seeds and almonds to achieve that type of consistency. (It’s peanut free, but there are also ground pumpkin seeds in it).
  • It was smoky, sweet, bitter and very warm with a mild heat and it complemented the smoky and savoury chicken perfectly.
  • It was served with a side of sauteed bell peppers, onions and cactus. It was nice and sweet and it was my first time trying cactus, but it tasted like slimy okra in the form of a long strand of bell pepper. It’s crunchy and tastes like a slimy jelly like green bell pepper.

Paella 3/6

  • Seafood: shrimps, mussels, clams and squid $18.95/person
  • Meat: Chorizo, chicken and snails $16.95/person
  • All of the above, but snails $18.95/person
  • 12 hour reservation required and 2 people minimum.
  • This is something that requires a pre-order because Chef Luis is extremely particular with the quality control of his specially prepared paella.
  • We ordered the all of the above paella and it’s pretty good value with the ingredients and portion, but the flavour wasn’t as impressive for me.
  • It was fresh and made with fresh seafood, but it lacked the flavour of an authentic paella. I’m using that “authentic” word very lightly as I’m not expecting it to taste as good as the ones in Spain, but I know it could be better. For Vancouver standards this one is still quite good.
  • It was loaded with seafood, but the prawns were overcooked and a couple mussels seemed a bit watery.
  • The chorizo wasn’t a house made cured Spanish chorizo and it was more like a slightly spicy sausage, so that was different from the paellas that I’m used too.
  • The chicken were cubes of chicken breast and they were moist, but could have been more seasoned.
  • The rice was al dente, moist, separate and not soggy and it had some seafood flavours with a touch of tomato paste. I wish the seafood and chicken stock it was made with was more intense though.
  • It would also be nice to get those smoky chorizo flavours and natural juices of the vegetables in there as well.
  • I also couldn’t get much saffron flavour although I could see a lot of saffron threads on top. I just couldn’t actually taste its perfume like floral flavour and I felt like the spice was dead or too old.
  • The peas were also a bit dry and starchy rather than sweet too, so the quality of those weren’t great.
  • I just found the rice a bit one dimensional in flavour and it lacked the spices, herbs, lemon tang, smokiness and depth of a great paella.

Desserts

All desserts are made in house, and for me, Latin or Mexican food requires a little sweet to finish off. Who am I kidding? That’s my criteria for all my meals! Anyways the ones here are all made in house and they’re quite gourmet. However I do find them overpriced considering desserts at fine dining restaurants such as Cioppino’s (see here) and Cin Cin (see here) have their desserts for almost the same price. The desserts were excellent, but even so, it was hard to justify their value even considering the labour and ingredients.

**Tres Leches Cake 5/6

  • Vanilla Torte infused with three types of milk, and served with seasonal fruits $8.95
  • It’s a traditional Spanish cake, served room temperature and it’s very light tasting, yet very dense with a tight crumb.
  • It’s not a pound cake, and it’s not fluffy, or airy like a sponge cake, but almost loaf like. It’s not buttery either, so it’s not rich and surprisingly not that filling since it’s so moist.
  • The cake is completely soaked with a mixture of evaporated and condensed milk so it’s nicely sweetened and very juicy.
  • It’s very runny in texture and every bite is like a sweet burst of milky syrup, but it’s not too rich or overly sweet.
  • The cake itself is a milk and egg based cake and it just absorbs the two types of milk poured onto it. It’s not really soggy either, but just incredibly moist and busting with liquid in every bite. Together it tastes like a very custard like cake and it’s like a juicy sweet dessert.
  • Traditionally it should be topped with a fresh whipped cream, but in this case it was a regular whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon served on the side.
  • The cake was excellent, not too sweet, yet very much a dessert and the piece was large so it’s easily shared.
  • For what it is, I still think it’s overpriced because it’s pretty easy to make, but it was still really really good.

**Organic Flourless Chili Chocolate Cake 4/6

  • Almond meal cake made with organic chocolate and mixed chilies $9.95
  • This was a very small portion, but it can still be shared since it’s a bit rich, however still not overly sweet.
  • The ice cream makes it not as sweet and I love the warm and cold contrast.
  • The chocolate cake was incredibly moist and it was a cross between a bittersweet lava cake, without the molten centre, and a light cake like brownie.
  • It was very soft and creamy, yet it had an almond like crumb, so it wasn’t as pastey as some flourless cakes can be. It’s not very nutty though.
  • It seemed like there was a hint of espresso in the background and the chili was very very faint and it only came after I completely finished the bite. It wasn’t that spicy at all and I could have used more. Eaten with the ice cream I especially couldn’t taste the chili.
  • The fresh raspberry coulis was a nice contrast with the rich chocolaty cake and it was a delicious cake, but I still think it’s a bit pricey considering the size. The ingredients are pricier and gourmet, but so are the ones from Thomas Haas and those cakes are almost half the price and double the size – see here.

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6 Comments

  • Linda says:

    mmm just as promised 🙂 even with the 12 hour reso, i’m sorry to hear that this paella lacked a bit of flavour and some of the seafood was overcooked.. i wonder if the chef made a bigger batch or just the batch that you ordered – if it was a larger order, maybe that’s why the seafood was overcooked – that usually tends to happen i find.. i guess that’s why paella is a bit tricky to make, everything needs to be done in a particular order and cooked for a certain time – reminds me of baking 🙂

    thanks for the update mijune! i’m glad the seafood was bountiful though 🙂

  • Bow says:

    The lack of taste in the paella could be contributed to watery, battery raised chicken and average stock. Perhaps if the chicken was brined or specialty chicken was used, the flavour would be more intense, but it would affect the cost. Also low grade US saffron($3/per small pouch) isn’t as intense as what one would get in Spain. If smoky chorizo wasn’t used than he should have added one of Spain’s greatest condiments:Pimenton de la Vera or smoked paprika. I always add chipotle powder,foamed to bring out that earthy smoky flavour. Betcha prawn heads and prawn shells weren’t cooked down in some water and then the water was add to the paprika. One could sub clam nectar. Was it made with Bomba rice ? A short grained rice from Calasparra; one could sub carnoli. Squid is also essential for flavour. Also the heat has to be high to keep the stock boiling to cook the rice. In Spain, it’s cooked on top of a burner attached to a propane bottle…here it’s hard to maintain adequate heat on an electric burner, so cheat by cooking your paella for 10 mins. on top and finish in a preheated 350 Farnenheit oven for 20 mins. more.

  • Mijune says:

    @Linda & @ Bow – first off… thanks for ALWAYS commenting!! You guys are GREAT!

    @Linda – Paella is SOOOO tricky!!! I could barely find anyone to make it in Spain that wouldn’t serve it frozen!! I hit up one place that made it with squid’s ink that my Spaniard friend brought me to… AMAZING! Still worth a try perhaps since I don’t know many other places making it 🙂

    @Bow – I feel stupid when I’m talking to you. Seriously Bow, your comments are too good lol. I love them though because you’re always right about everything. I can fully agree with the smoky chorizo, chicken broth and squid… would have made such a difference, so it was a a combination of things… but again that would come with increased price to maybe $25/person. Sooooo can I ask when you’ll be selling your paella?!? 🙂

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