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I know I was wondering what to expect from this Near North restaurant helmed by Katsuji Tanabe of “Top Chef” fame.As the Tribune reported around the time Barrio opened last summer, look for “Mexican-ish” here.My favorite is the Jim Shoe () tamale: A fat lamb and beef tamale arrives topped with pastrami, cheese, hot and sweet peppers, and a creamy house sauce.It's based on the Jim Shoe sandwich, a strange Chicago specialty, in which gyro meat, corned beef and roast beef join an unholy alliance with mustard, gyro sauce and giardiniera.They differ from ubiquitous Mexican tamales in that they are constructed from cornmeal instead of masa (nixtamalized corn), and cooked in a liquid instead of being steamed.The regular red hot tamales () come three to an order and are astoundingly tender, all without a trace of grittiness.The cornbread arrives in a cast-iron pan, is firm enough to slice neatly and eat in-hand, yet sports a texture so delightfully loose and crumbly that you may worry — needlessly — that it will fall apart.Barrio offers a selection of tacos both traditional and “deconstructed” (that means you get to build them yourself). Sadly, you have to have the same filling in all three.
Asked for his recommendations, the server immediately pointed to two starters: grilled octopus () and cornbread ().They’re big — you may want to share — but are wonderfully light and airy.Served alongside are small pots of salty caramel sauce, rich chocolate and a vanilla crema.You can also do nothing but nurse a beer at some North Side watering holes and wait for the red-cooler-toting Tamale Guy to spring through the door, like Santa for the seriously sauced.But The Delta manages to set itself apart by serving Mississippi Delta tamales, a distinct style that, if it weren't completely obvious by now, originated in the Mississippi Delta (basically, the northwest part of that state).
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Barrio was bustling on a recent Friday afternoon, and I guessed there were two reasons: Maybe the crowd was pumped with that end-of-the-week-holiday-season vibe or maybe it was buoyed by a sense of expectation (or already knew what was coming).