Is Barrio Cafe's Take on Mexican Food Authentic? And Does It Matter?

Categories: Chow Bella

barrio salad.jpg
Alex Rodriguez
This side salad is suddenly the center of a heated debate about authentic Mexican cuisine.

Editor's Note: The final post in our "Eating 16th Street" series about Barrio Cafe has drawn quite a bit of criticism, so when Sharon Salomon -- a Phoenix-based food writer, dietitican, investor in Barrio Cafe and one of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's culinary school instructors -- asked to write a guest post in response, we said yes.

See also:
Barrio Cafe: Good -- But Glorified -- Mexican Food
Eating 16th Street archives
Tastemaker 73: Sharon Salomon

The Chow Bella post about Barrio Café written by Alex Rodriguez earlier this week irritated me. In fact, it really pissed me off.

Ms. Rodriguez is of course entitled to her opinion but it was the tone of her writing and what she chose to attack that left me livid.

We food writers often try to define what is meant by authenticity in ethnic cuisines. Maybe way back when cultural groups were more isolated and before there were hundreds of food magazines, thousands of cookbooks, celebrity chefs on television and before international travel was common, authentic recipes existed. But that was then. Nowadays the food world is a melting pot and no place is that more evident than in the United States.

I've never had borscht in Moscow as Ms. Rodriguez has but I grew up eating the borscht prepared by my Polish Russian grandmother. I'm not sure if my grandmother's borscht was what Ms. Rodriguez would consider authentic, traditional, genuine or bona fide. But it was borscht cooked by a Polish Russian woman who learned it from her Polish mother who probably learned it from her mother. I would be shocked if it were the same borscht that Rodriguez tasted in Russia in the 21st Century. So whose is more authentic?

eating16thstreet2.jpg
Illustration by Claire Lawton
Barrio Cafe was Alex Rodriguez's last stop in her "Eating 16th Street" series.

Let's talk about Alex's Barrio Café post. Of course, as kids always say, "this is a free country" and she is entitled to her opinion (even if every other critic who has ever eaten at Barrio disagrees with her).

Let's talk about whether or not a torta served with a side salad is authentic Mexican cuisine or not.

Let's see. A Mexican American chef conceived the dish. The dish was prepared by a Mexican chef using ingredients typical to Mexico although they may have been grown in the United States (authenticity does have limitations). What seems to have bothered Ms. Rodriguez was the side salad.

Silvana, who by the way was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame several years ago as well as having been nominated twice by that organization that Alex doesn't like, the James Beard Foundation (and I truly do not understand what that had to do with what she was writing about but she chose nonetheless to mention it), is a classically trained chef in addition to having learned to cook in her Mexican mother's kitchen. Most certainly Silvana is influenced both by her ethnic heritage and by her classical training.
Classically trained chefs are taught to "balance flavors". Someone with a fine tuned palate will be able to parse the ingredients in a dish but to most of us food tastes good because we can't deconstruct the dish. By adding an acidic salad dressing to the otherwise somewhat fatty torta, Silvana is balancing the flavors. There are of course many ways she could have balanced the flavors but chefs always add their own personal touches and the balsamic dressing is Silvana's.

Is Mexican food "rustic" cuisine as Alex describes it? Hmmmm. My experience with authentic Mexican food is apparently different from hers.


Location Info

Barrio Cafe

2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

La Santisima

1919 N. 16th St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

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31 comments
Sumosommelier
Sumosommelier

 

What an absurd tempest in a teacup...I love how offended everybody gets! Their feathers ruffled when it comes to anything "Mexican" in Phoenix. Phoenix is only built on a former Mesoamerican Indigenous site (abandoned by 1450) and was incorporated in 1881. It was not some unique Mexican, Spanish, or even Native site? It was a desert which drew miners and was founded by a Confederate veteran from the South who wanted to call it "Stonewall."

Pure poppycock to claim some "authentic" hegemony from anything Mexican any more than a Midwest western winter haven. The thing that makes Phoenix unique is it is attractive to all people...great weather, outdoor living, and ease of movement. It has become a major US City only recently. Silvana is from the Central Valley of California, Wendy was from the Midwest, and Sharon is a New Yorker! Sharon and Wendy are Jewish, and Silvana grew up in California not Aztlan! This whole insidious argument about what is genuine and authentic is completely inauthentic and in genuine. Is the dish Enchiladas Suizas authentic? The very word means Swiss..due to the inclusion of  béchamel...Tequila is only possible due to the art of distillation from European influence (and before Moorish), The great beers of Mexico are German and Bohemian origin, just as they are in Texas and Milwaukee. The food is good a Barrio...people enjoy it! Don't make food political or controversial...you'll enjoy it more!

wherewasi
wherewasi topcommenter

What I find odd is that in the "editor's note" opening this article, she said that the review of Barrio Cafe had "drawn quite a bit of criticism".  However, when I looked at the original article, there were 4 comments.  Three of them basically said that they agree that Barrio Cafe is not so great, and one that said basically "who cares what you think, Alex".  I didn't see much criticism at all, much less "quite a bit".

 

I think that Sharon probably emailed New Times to say that SHE had quite a bit of criticism and wanted her own blog to dispute Alex's comments.  I agree with the poster who said that the fact that Sharon is an investor in Barrio Cafe makes her take perhaps a bit slanted.

 

As for me, I've been to Barrio once.  The place was almost empty for a late lunch, we were a party of 5, and our accomdations were cramped and uncomfortable.  Our service was at best mediocre, and the food was okay.  Not great, but okay.  While I don't really care one way or another about the authenticity or lack thereof, I just found that most of what we had was pretty bland.  (We ordered 5 different entres and shared.)

GrammarPolice
GrammarPolice

The only thing about this article that stresses me out is the egregious use of commas and periods outside of quotation marks. Sharon, I think you are a great writer--surely you know where to put the "comma," and "period."

hipveggies
hipveggies

I read the article and tried my best to consider the perspective this author used in writing it.  I walked away knowing she hates the James Beard Foundation and that her opinion seems to be that if you don't cook like her own mother, it's not "authentic Mexican".  For heaven's sake, Mexico consists of 32 different states, each with its own fantastic cuisine made from a wonderful palette of regional ingredients.  Baja fish tacos, banana leaf-wrapped tamales from the south, Veracruz-style seafood, the moles of the interior, Sonoran carne seca, Rocky Point shrimp...each of those is unique and completely different from each other, and completely authentic.  Even here in Arizona, we have different styles of Mexican food.  I mentioned in my own Chow Bella interview not long ago that Tucsonans living in Phoenix lament that there is not an armpit tortilla to be found further north and that carne seca dried on the roof is something we love but can't get in Phoenix.  I would hate to think that only one style of cooking is considered appropriate, given the rich variety of regional offerings and contributions of indigenous cultures I have come to know and love as Mexico.  A little bit of inclusiveness and interest in something different than what was on your own childhood plate would be gracious.

YouMightFigureItOut
YouMightFigureItOut

Borsht is pronounced "Borsch," no "t" at the end, that's an English-added sound to make up for the "Shch" cyrillic letter.  So "BORSCH" is a an AUTHENTIC SPELLING, not to be confused with some English added sound which is SO DECIDEDLY NOT AUTHENTIC.  Even Russians know that Ukrainian borsch is authentic and not to be confused with some plain cabbage soup.  oh whatever, this is sarcasm and I hoped you lame critics picked up on it.

 

Authenticism in food eating is such an overrated concept.  It's ridiculous.  Good tasting food in a neighborhood restaurant to be gauged by its authenticity?!?!  I hope those of you like Alex Rodriguez interview your Mexican chefs and make sure their ingredients were home grown, are legitimately bred in the area where their food comes from, only use food native to that area, and of course never ever add ingredients which would taint the authentic cuisine of their ancestors for the last 800 years... Excuse me for writing this, but fuck that.  

 

I've lived on 16th and McDowell for several years now and love that I have a variety of different Mexican and El Salvadoran restaurants and carnicerias and dulcerias to choose from only blocks from my place.  This neighborhood needed an upscale place like Bario Cafe and although I only get to eat there a few times during the year because it is a little out of my price range, I would miss it greatly if it were gone.  Should Barrio Cafe be judged because of artistic license to Mexican cuisine in an upscale place?  No, that's what cuisine is, you fools.  the mixing of cultural flavors.  wash your own rice, soak your own beans, fry your own tortillas for chips if you're concerned with cultural authenticity.  I'll enjoy the variety in MY neighborhood any way I like.  

Jacob Lebo
Jacob Lebo

authentic or not, it's just not good food.

Michael Hodgins
Michael Hodgins

The problem is that authentic for one is rarely authentic for another; there are no absolute truths, only perceptions. How can there be when authenticity is purely based on how you were brought up, what region of a country you are from and whether or not your family prepared a dish in a particular manner. My wife is from the south of Mexico and barely recognizes Sonoran/Mexican American food i.e. she didn't grow up eating flour tortillas and gobs of yellow cheddar cheese.

Javier Danger J
Javier Danger J

It's just not that good if you've had the real thing. There I said it. Cats out of the bag

Victor Moreno
Victor Moreno

the original article seems pretty fair to me, the james beard thing was blown up way more by the rebuttal writer. if anything, the miami writer points out that lots of locals seem to like it but it doesnt hit the right notes to be authentic. the authentic and upscale platform is a shaky one in general

jmoriarty
jmoriarty

In spite of the disclaimer at the top, the fact that Sharon is an investor in Barrio Cafe really strikes me as skirting some journalistic lines. Does Barrio Cafe advertise in New Times? Is there a policy now of giving advertisers and business owners space to rebuke things they don't like?

Pifas
Pifas

Sounds like Sharon is bitter about getting a little criticism 

Mary Doe
Mary Doe

There is already a catty reply by the author of the original 'review.' They are doing fine 'debating' whose grandmama, pardon me, "babushka", was more authentic.

Johnny Zapp
Johnny Zapp

All that matters is that it's good. That is all. Thank you.

Ezhik
Ezhik

"Bortsch in Moscow" is definitely not an example of 'authentic' food. It's like "I ate curry in London." Russian (Moscow) equivalent of  bortsch is 'tschi.' Bortsch is a dish from Ukraine - both Western (used to be Poland) and Eastern (used to be Russia) - which is an independent country now. It was made popular through the former Soviet Union, but underwent various changes in the process. I am having authenticity debates in my kitchen every time my mother-in-law is visiting.  Both my mother and she are craving the tastes they remember as children and both try to reduce it to 'authenticity.' 

 

Karen Stone
Karen Stone

Love Barrio Cafe, and it doesn't matter to me if it is authentic or not.

oldfriend
oldfriend

Is this the very same Alex Rodriguez who went to beach high? If so, you are greatly miss representing yourself. If my memory serves me correctly you are 50% El Salvadorian, 25% Mexican, and 25% Ukrainian. With this being said you only have 25% Mexican taste buds to criticize “authentic Mexican cuisine” So with 25% knowledge who gives you the right to criticize the restaurant. Also in high school I remember you ventured in journalism and not the art of cuisine. Where are your food critic credentials? From what I remember back you don’t even like (or even eat) seafood and doesn’t a food critic have to be able to dabble in all food groups? Knowing what is on the fast food menu does not qualify you to be a food critic. As for your travels, childhood taste buds don’t compare to the adult version so I suggest you go back to writing what you know about. As it is obviously you blew any credibility of being a food critic.   If your credential’s come from sleeping with a chef then I think anyone can call themselves a critic. If you need a pupusa recipe let me know I can hook you up.

Just remember in life you never know who you meet today you will need tomorrow…

edward12_23
edward12_23

As Sharon Salomon stated "Barrio Café is a white tablecloth upscale restaurant. It's also a neighborhood joint for those of us who live close by but for most people, Barrio is a place to go for a special meal. No beans. No rice. No chimichangas. No chips. No comparison to anything in the Valley" , that is what offends me as  mexican of heritage does that mean that Barrio Cafe is too good for the basics of the mexican diet which is beans, rice, and torillas. 

zantiago.avila
zantiago.avila

Ms. Rodriguez, Como dicen por alli el que se enjoja pierde! You are entitled to your own opinion, but at the same time don't transmit you’re biases and misconceptions against institutions and organizations that you don't align too.  I find that a little unprofessional too!

When it comes to authentic, I think we all have different views of what authentic is. Especially, when you speak of authenticity in America, we are a nations of mix races and ethnics backgrounds, and I am sure you can attest to this, as foodies, we tend to mix and match ingredients, you can see me eating Mexican Rice, with Chicken Parmigiana, and Sriracha sauce on it! I am from the school of thought that cuisine is cuisine, who cares what it's called, as long as it tastes GOOD! That is my two cents!

Animo!!!

-Santiago from the O.C. in CA

 

opinionatedbutright
opinionatedbutright

per Alex's remarks: "Take back our food scene"???? I guess that says it all. Adios Alex. I'm sure Miami is happy to have you back.

Sharon B. Salomon
Sharon B. Salomon

LOL, Pam. I'm really a pussycat. Just don't hurt my kids (my real children, my dogs, my husband, my friends and my business).

ARodWrites
ARodWrites

Hi, Sharon: I really appreciate you taking such a stand on my Barrio Cafe piece for Chow Bella. There are a few things I'd like to address in your rebuttal, as you personally called me out for a few questions. 

 

First: Amy Silverman's intro (which can be found at the beginning of each Eating 16th Street post) states not that the borscht I had in Moscow was the best. It simply says that I've had it there, making no mention of its authenticity, grade, etc. If you must know, the best I've ever had was made by my late Ukrainian grandmother (Yep, I'm 50 percent Mexican, 50 percent Ukrainian and both backgrounds were very present in my upbringing). Like your grandmother, she learned it from her mother, who learned from her mother, and so on. 

 

Second: You mentioned that the chef is a Mexican-American, who used ingredients typical to Mexico -- that part's expected. But as a Mexican-American myself, what bothered me was the call for authenticity, when authenticity is not what's served on the plates (for the sake of argument, I'm limiting my opinion to the dishes I tried, because I cannot speak for anything else). Did it piss me off that a fellow New Times contributor received a salad with her torta? Yeah, it did. As much as reading my piece on the restaurant pissed you off -- so, surely, you understand. 

 

Third: You brought up the question of whether Mexican food is "rustic." When I was growing up, my mother's (who was born in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to Mexican parents) kitchen smelled rustic. It smelled like my grandfather's cooking, which probably smelled like his grandfather's cooking, which probably... well, you get the point. The feeling evoked was age. Few things are better than when age and wisdom are the first two ingredients in a recipe. 

 

Fourth: You said you lived in Mexico half a century ago during your university studies. That's great for you. But did you grow up in a Mexican household with this food surrounding you 24/7? From recipes that had been passed down the generations like heirlooms? If you did, I'll take back my argument immediately. 

 

Fifth: I'm pretty sure I didn't say whether I thought La Condesa's cuisine was authentic or not. I said I liked it. But whether it was authentic was left up to the judgment of the reader. I stand behind my statement that the strawberry salsa is amazing. (I really did mention that, by the way: http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/bella/2012/08/la_condessa.php?page=2)

 

Sixth: My issues with the James Beard Foundation stem from their lack of recognition for the back of the house people who don't don a chef's coat. Here's an excerpt from the piece I linked to in my Barrio Cafe post: "What's worse, the foundation aims to exemplify the country as a whole. It says so in big orange letters on its website: "The James Beard Foundation's Mission is to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America's diverse culinary heritage and future." Big news, according to the US Census Bureau, yesteryear's minority is rapidly gaining speed to double by 2050. That sounds like a future to us. And last we checked with Webster, the term diverse means "differing from one another."  Except a few attendees here and there, who exactly "differed" from one another in the sea of nominees and award winners last night in terms of occupation and race?We challenge you, James Beard Foundation (or anyone in the industry, for that matter), to create award categories for the unsung people in those kitchens -- the people you and others have made millions off of. And if you think creating categories for "the little people" singles out minority groups around the country, thus implementing reverse equality, think again. As Bourdain said on Twitter, "never saw [a white kid] in 25 years come in for a DW or porter job." Of course, that doesn't speak for everyone, but it does speak for many. " The link to that piece is here, for your convenience:  http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/shortorder/2012/05/james_beard_awards_screw_latin.php That being said, I know that Chef Silvana is Mexican. I know she was nominated. But I lost respect for the James Beard Foundation when only a small percentage of the awardees are people of color. 

 

I don't want you to think my piece was strictly on the food. I was very clear in stating that my issue was the food when taking the restaurant's mission statement into consideration. " A little neighborhood eatery providing authentic southern Mexico cuisine and chef's original creations in an unpretentious atmosphere." 

 

Finally: Sharon, food writer to food writer, I respect your opinion. Forgive my lengthy rebuttal, but you can't deny it wasn't warranted given this post. 

 

I will say, however, I find it extremely unprofessional and journalistically unethical that you wrote (an almost) personal attack to me (under the context of my review) for a place that you have personally invested money into. That is a cold hard fact that we can't look over, and while I understand that it's stated right at the top of your post, I still find it wrong. That's fine if you didn't like what I had to say. That's fine if you wanted to speak against it. And it's most certainly fine with me if you want to speak against it publicly. But to do so under the name of Phoenix New Times, the company I worked for during this series, is distasteful. It's a given that you're not going to like something negative written about a restaurant you've invested in. Who would?

 

Furthermore, I realize that this comment will likely fall on deaf ears -- I'm a Miami writer who spent some time in Phoenix and was asked to give my opinion and utilize my ethnic expertise on the Phoenix restaurant scene. Still, I won't change my opinions. Luckily, though, I don't ever have to go to Phoenix or eat at Barrio Cafe again, as I'm back in Miami. You can take back your food scene and have it all to yourself. 

 

Cheers,

Alex

readysetgo
readysetgo

While I love Barrio Cafe, I think Ms. Salomon misinterpreted much of Alex's article. Furthermore, if you want to stop talking about authentic food, then perhaps you need to have Silvana remove that description from Barrio Cafe's mission statement. La Condesa (which I agree is hard to compare), on the other hand, states that it is only "inspired" by Mexican cuisine. 

harlychef
harlychef

Way to go Sharon! Nice response. As one of Silvana's instructors years ago I agree with you wholeheartedly. Authentic Mexican food combined with classical French training is what makes her food so good.

Pam Reilly
Pam Reilly

Wow! Excellent article, so much passion I could actually hear her fist coming down on the table! That is a lady you want on your side of the court (or table ...)!

zantiago.avila
zantiago.avila

 @YouMightFigureItOut Amen to you brotha/sista! (I'm not to good at figuring sex out when a person writes) Like you I'm a believer in that cuisine is cuisine, if it taste good that is all that matters... Hallelujah for your thoughts!

tdhurst
tdhurst

 @jmoriarty PNT will say that this section is a blog and journalistic rules don't completely apply. Doesn't make it right, but that's what I've long argued with them about.

anon
anon

 @oldfriend glad you got that off your chest, eh? breathe in, breathe out it'll be okay, oldfriend. it'll be okay.

zantiago.avila
zantiago.avila

 @oldfriend LMAO!!!!!! WOW!!! Old baggage huh??? LOL!!! But good point if you know her personally.

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