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Photos by Beth Furgurson
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Beef barbacoa enchilada Photos by Beth Furgurson
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Guacamole with homemade chips and salsa Photo by Beth Furgurson
Let me start by saying: I am very much on the record as being a fan of The Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, and Casa Del Barco is the newest member of owner Kevin Healy's restaurant family. Seriously, Google that (joseph cates boathouse rocketts). And yes, that sort of prefigures what kind of review this is going to be.
I'm also a big fan of Mexican food in general. My local favorite is La Milpa on Hull Street Road, and I desperately miss Nate's Taco Truck. (Don't Look Back is not quite the same.) I think the combination of bold flavors and affordability is what makes the cuisine work so well, but I have been consistently disappointed by high-end iterations that lose those elements. Keep those two things in mind: Love me some Mexican, love me some Boathouse.
I am unconvinced that anyone who has managerial responsibility over operations in either the front or back of the house at Casa Del Barco has sat down in the beautifully appointed dining room with a bowl of broken queso fundido and a handful of slightly too-thick and somehow simultaneously crumbly tortillas and tried to actually eat it and then felt like $10 was a fair price for the experience. But hey, caveat emptor: The first thing our server told us when we sat down at 6 p.m. was that the restaurant was "really known for its tequilas and late-night bar scene." (There are more than 100 varieties of tequila on the menu.) Never mind that I was with my 8-year-old. And in the spirit of more full disclosure, I've been sober for more than a decade now — I'm not interested in anything but the food.
But since we're talking service here, I don't think I've ever seen such a huge cohort of front, back and side servers, and somehow the sheer number seemed to slow down the actual service, maybe because of a lack of clearly prescribed roles for all these folks.
Now in terms of food: I didn't see the little things that speak of quality control. The execution of staples and side dishes always, always tells a better story than that of the tricky fusion entrées. In this case, the handmade tortillas were of variable consistency, thickness and doneness. This is the platform upon which the main attraction rests — and the tortillas were a crumbling mess.
The version of enchiladas that I was served suffered from fatty barbacoa and dried-out, brittle tortillas. In my book, enchiladas are something else entirely: cheesy, crisp at the edges and tender in the middle. I had thought the chicken tacos would be a safe bet, but the addition of orange zest overpowered the flavor of anything else. The filling was dry and the tortillas, again, were torn and crumbly. A promising (sounding) dish of shrimp empanadas was ruined by the funkiness of what seemed to be less-than-fresh shrimp.
Likewise disappointing were the side dishes. Spanish rice and beans should be straightforward and consistently prepared. Dried-out rice and flavorless beans don't add up to the price point at this joint, nor does a tangled knot of greasy plantains. I don't mind paying top dollar, but only when the food deserves it. There are dozens of restaurants nearby that justify the same expense with stellar food and service.
When I came back for lunch, I was actively looking for something I could remark upon positively. I did find the langosta (lobster) ceviche to be tasty and fresh and nicely presented over greens. But at $16, I expected more than a scant amount of tail and claw. This was followed by a skirt steak sandwich (The Gaucho) that was the best of the dishes I was served. The combination of rare steak and fried egg worked well with the avocado and chipotle remoulade. It made me wish they had set their sights on a slightly different approach — one at the lower end of the price scale.
The setting along the canal is beautiful and the physical space has been restored using reclaimed materials in inventive ways, but in the final analysis, I have to say that there's a better concept to fit this spot, and I hope the owners figure it out. Maybe all they need to do is allow the new chef more latitude.
Currently, there are a great number of holdover dishes from the previous chef's menu, and I'd like to see what would happen if they started over from scratch. They've captured the drinking crowd; that much is obvious. Now it'd be wonderful to give people a reason to eat here, too.
Casa Del Barco
320 S. 12th St., 775-2628, casadelbarco.com
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Monday to Sunday, 3 p.m. to close; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Lunch $6 to $15; dinner $8 to $23; brunch $6 to $12