Tall, elegant, and draped in heavy tiaras of salt, the margaritas at Las Barras were bracing, ice-cold beauties. This we knew even before the waiter spilled a trayful of them into my lap. But if you ever want a yardstick to determine how well a particular restaurant's food measures up, a lapful of mixed drinks may very well be the tool you seek: When a diner can endure a cold tequila shower and then praise the food before the Triple Sec has even dried, it's obvious that the kitchen is on the right track.
At least the theory pans out at Las Barras, a casual Avon Lake restaurant snuggled into The Landings shopping complex, where chef-owner Ryan Rieth does a good job with an interesting assortment of what he truthfully calls "creative Tex-Mex food with a twist of authenticity."
Obviously, this is not haute cuisine. Rieth, who traces his career development back to the age of 12 and a stint at downtown Cleveland's New York Spaghetti House, has no formal training, and he is clearly aiming to put out food that goes down easy with selections from his well-stocked bar. As a result, the flavors of virtually everything on the menu -- including those long-stemmed margaritas -- can be described as some combination of sweet, salty, or hot. But on the other hand, Rieth is a stickler for freshness, treats his ingredients with respect, and rarely lets his desire to get jiggy with the menu run away with his good sense.
In fact, it makes you wonder what might have developed if he and John Rieth, his dad and business partner, had stuck with their original plans for the restaurant, which called for Las Barras to debut as an upscale "Mexican chophouse," featuring a menu of top-quality steaks and seafood with a south-of-the-border twist. It's an intriguing concept and certainly not one that has been done to death. But soon after opening in February 2005, they determined that their customer base was more inclined toward casual, inexpensive fare. The Rieths quickly and wisely revised their vision into a laid-back restaurant with a solid menu of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, and burritos, along with barbecued ribs and an assortment of chicken-breast entrées, all brought forth in impressive portions and mostly priced in the $10-$16 range.
In addition to developing a rational menu, the Rieths gave more than passing thought to the restaurant's appointments and amenities. You'll look in vain, for instance, for conventions like sombreros and serapes. That's reggae, not mariachi, playing in the background, and there's a surprising degree of elegance and warmth lent by the wooden floors, tropically colored walls, and a handsome corner fireplace. And while napkins are paper and the tabletops are bare (save for tall, frosted-glass oil lamps), Fiesta-style dishware in eye-popping shades of turquoise and coral provide smart, contemporary backdrops for Ryan Rieth's neatly plated food.
Over the past months, the Rieths also have lined the main dining room with a clutch of televisions, developed a Thursday-though-Saturday-night schedule of live music, instituted a 4-to- 7 p.m. happy hour and a Thursday-night "ladies' night," and put together a menu of bar noshes that's served until 2 a.m. The result is a good-looking, energetic, yet family-friendly spot that's a sort of cross between a Mexican cantina and a sports bar, with few of the irritating clichés of either.
One cantina cliché that we never object to, however, is greeting guests with tortilla chips and salsa. At Las Barras, that means a basket of tri-color chips of average flavor and freshness, and a dish of zesty, homemade salsa, a smooth-textured blend of tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, sweet pepper, and garlic. Ordering a side of hearty guacamole at this point isn't a bad idea either; the honest, earthy flavors of fresh avocado get a wham-bam boost from a liberal squirt of fresh lime juice, although the kitchen could probably cut back at least a little on the salt.
Several of the entrées come with a choice of homemade sauces, and a smart way to check them out in advance is by ordering the sauce sampler, a collection of five sauce-filled ramekins and four warm, tende, flour tortillas for dipping. Both the garlic cream and verde sauces proved to be favorites at our table for their smooth textures and mellow, well-developed flavors. In comparison, both the white cheddar queso and spinach queso seemed a little one-dimensional, and a thick roasted red-pepper sauce, while not spicy, bordered on bitter. The final offering, the chipotle cream sauce, was sleek and zesty, although its flavor lacked much in the way of subtlety.
On the other hand, the kitchen's homemade chipotle-apple glaze, slathered on succulent, bite-sized baby-back ribs or on a fork-tender chipotle chicken breast, was full of subtle surprises. First came the rush of soft, fruity apple, followed moments later by the tang of cider. Finally, a slow, steady warmth began to tingle on our tongue for a sequence of sensations that was as entertaining as it was tasty.
Those meaty little ribs also came with a crisp jicama slaw, spiked with golden raisins, sunflower seeds, and red cabbage, for a burst of creamy sweetness that helped echo and expand the fruity flavor notes of the barbecue. It should be back to the drawing board, however, for a side of white-cheddar mashed potatoes: So watery they were actually served in a bowl, they could have easily doubled as chip dip.
Happily, a "Chimi and a Chop" combo -- a crisply fried chimichanga sided by a sweet, Asian-inspired honey shrimp salad -- made us forget all about the dud spuds. Who knew that the flavors of teriyaki, Dijon mustard, and honey would go so swimmingly with tortillas, ground beef, and melted cheese? Or that an ostensibly Tex-Mex kitchen could turn out such succulent little rock shrimp?
Still, Rieth considers his quesadillas the specialty of the house, and the signature Las Barras Quesadilla was certainly up to carrying that banner, with its double-decker stack-up of soft flour tortillas, amply stuffed with a choice of steak, chicken, ground beef, veggies, or pulled pork, and garnished with chopped sweet peppers, onion, and a blend of Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese. The tortilla stacks were then cut into tidy wedges, arranged into an intricate, eight-sided star, drizzled with citrusy tequila-lime aïoli, topped with shredded lettuce and dollops of sour cream, and -- just in case that wasn't quite enough -- served with spicy, jalapeño-spiked cream cheese. Sounds like a potential train wreck, you're thinking? Us too. Yet somehow the flavors melded into a delightful whole, for a fiesta on a plate that left no taste bud untingled.
Besides various styles of margaritas (consider ordering yours without the salt, unless you enjoy feeling like you've been sucking a deer lick), the bar features an assortment of martinis, shooters, beer, a small wine list, and more than two dozen sippin' tequilas. Unfortunately, the beverage menu bears no prices, a situation that turned ordering a shot of tequila into a battle of wills with our inexperienced waiter. Not knowing the prices himself, he apparently figured it was safer if we simply ordered nothing -- thereby avoiding the chance that we would be angry with him if the cost were more than we had expected. Rieth says he's planning to address the problem -- in terms of both server training and the menu.
He's also thinking about reworking the small dessert menu, which presently is limited to two styles of sweet chimichangas, one filled with banana and apricot, and the other with semisweet chocolate and peanut butter. We tried the second option, which turned out to be neatly plated, but monotonously goopy. Fruit sorbets in tropical flavors would make a good alternative, we think, for those who need a final taste of something sweet.
Las Barras is, after all, a pleasant place to linger. Just watch out for falling margaritas.
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