Restaurant Review

A Fiesta For All Seasons: Barrio Costero

A talented team take Mexican traditions on a rollercoaster ride of scintillating flavors in food and drink.

Duck pozole, a twist on tradition.
Duck pozole, a twist on tradition.
Photo by Christopher Villano

The dish is called Sweet Potato. Just that. It’s on the menu at the year-old Barrio Costero, a hip, joyous spot whose name translates to “coastal neighborhood,” befitting its location in Asbury Park.

This $7 accompanamiento is as hugely popular as it is simple. Whipped sweet potato is sautéed, briefly baked, topped with sensuous, slow-cooked black beans and tangy, salty, Chihuahua cheese, and returned to the oven. When it emerges, it is topped with chunky guacamole and a dollop of scallion crema and sent out under a twirl of micro-cilantro.

It is so surprisingly captivating that I understand why executive chef Antony Bustamante doesn’t want to pigeonhole it by labeling it a spread or a dip.
Sweet Potato, which Bustamante originally concocted for a staff meal to use up extra spuds, exemplifies Barrio Costero’s modern Mexican food, which draws on classic dishes while taking inspired liberties with ingredients.

“We’re not pretentious about our food,” says Bustamante. “We’re more about flavors, mixing and matching spicy and salty and sweet.”

That is why pert empanaditas are stuffed with minced vegetables and plated with a flourish of musky quince-cardamom purée. That’s why a stack of blistered shishito peppers is capped with smoky-creamy chipotle purée and dusted with chili-lime salt plus—brace yourself—pulverized dry-roasted grasshoppers (chapulines, in Spanish). Think crispy-crunchy mingling with salt, pepper and smoke.

Huarache, a base of fried masa (cornmeal), is placed on thick, spicy red mole (pronounced mo-lay) sauce and topped with sultry sautéed mushrooms from Shibumi Farms outside Princeton—enoki, shiitake, oyster, maitake and lion’s mane. You recognize the classic huarache, but here it’s refreshed, revitalized.

Bustamante was promoted from sous chef when opening chef David Viana departed last summer. Bustamante, who just turned 40, grew up in Los Angeles and learned to cook in the Navy, eventually becoming personal chef to the captain of his ship as it patrolled the Persian Gulf. He says his style of leadership in the kitchen is rooted in the values of teamwork, discipline and dedication he learned in the military.

Moving to New Jersey straight out of the Navy, Bustamante followed pals into the restaurant biz. He learned at the stoves in high-end restaurants, including Agricola in Princeton, then segued to Florida (which he hated), and returned to Princeton as sous chef of Mistral, (which he loved), before helping to open Barrio Costero.

Bustamante’s chilaquiles, his very personal take on the classic, shows his star power. Seared ocean trout, moist and mildly sweet, contrasts with totopos (tortilla strips fried light and extra crispy), potent fresno chilies and briny olives. It fires on all cylinders as it hits the palate.

So does the duck pozole, which marries Southwest France to the American Southwest by giving the classic hominy-pocked soup an infusion of shredded, preserved duck. Factor in feisty chilies in a tomatillo salsa and the crunch of watermelon radish, and taste buds are in for a fiesta. Likewise, seared scallops deliver a one-two punch of sweet-tart pineapple and jalapeño heat.

Even salads rock the routine. Kale, so often dutiful, here gets a soft-boiled egg, shallots, capers and a vinaigrette studded with sharp, crumbly Cotija cheese. Between the capers and the Cotija, you get two styles of salinity in every bite.

The kitchen’s technical skills are on display in the beet and tomato salad. Heirloom cherry tomatoes, golden and ruby red, are skinned, seeded and quartered, then set against cubes of red and gold beets. They’re partnered with a beet mole that’s earthy and faintly sweet, with a suspicion of smoke. It’s sprinkled with crunchy toasted pepitas and given a swipe of ancho crema that provides silky texture and a touch more smoke. Yet the secret to this salad’s success is the gloss of an herbed oil, adding sheen and hints of thyme, rosemary, basil and oregano.

The restaurant occupies the brick building that once housed the Asbury Park Press and still has the newspaper’s name carved in stone over the proscenium entrance. News is still being generated inside. Bustamante and his crew, who work in an open kitchen, hope to educate Jersey gringos in the wide range of Mexican moles. They are categorized by color and are as disparate in flavor as hot (chilie-based); sour (with tomatillos); sweet (with dried fruits); and those thickened with nuts.

At Barrio Costero, you can revel in blood mole (de sangre, which is black and flavored with pig’s blood and chocolate)  over shredded short rib. It’s done carnitas-style—braised—then finished in an oven to crisp the edges.

Speaking of rich, the bacon belly Yucatan falls apart with the prick of a fork, making it easy to stuff into small flour tortillas along with piquant pickled onions and pineapple salsa.

In three visits, just one dish was flawed and one ho-hum. The flaw was in octopus, flavorful from squid-ink mole but overcooked and tough in places. The family-style tampiquena steak was ordinary, though properly cooked and plated with fried egg, greens and potato quesadillas. Those quesadillas, by the way, are offered as a separate item on the ever-changing bill of fare. I could down them by the dozen.

The signature dessert is flan, eggy and airy, as it should be. Equally good is the chocolate mescal cake, whose deep cocoa, citrusy-smoky charms resonated with me for days. Tres leches cake was amazingly, almost drinkably, moist, admirable for a flour-based confection.

Bustamante is not Barrio’s only star. Jamie Dodge, who rose to prominence at sister restaurants Elements and Mistral in Princeton, has crafted Mexican-influenced cocktails that make Barrio’s busy bar worth a visit on its own. Highlights include Jalisco Is Burning (blanco tequila, mezcal, chipotle, lime); NJ 75 (applejack, lemon-apple cider, cava), and Taranga Teaser (crème de mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, Aperol, bitters).

Owned by Dodge and partners Derek Brosseau (beverages/operations)  and Rob Feinstein (designer), Barrio Costero offers a chic setting and a vivacious scene. But its soul speaks through the joyous food of Bustamante, rooted in tradition yet open to invention, and able to make a dish simply called Sweet Potato burst like a piñata with pleasure and surprise.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Mexican
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Small plates, $6-$9; mid-size, $10-$24; family-style entrées, $35; desserts, $10.
  • Ambience:
    Contemporary industrial chic.
  • Service:
    Enthused, helpful; can be strained at peak times.
  • Wine list:
    Wine list (bottles $25-$28) favors Spain and South America; cocktails ($9-$12) change often; 15 beers.

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