Serious Eats: Chicago
Standing Room Only: Barcito
151 West Erie Street, Chicago, IL 60654; 312-274-1111; standandeat.com
The Short Order: San Sebastian-style pintxo bar in the middle of River North
Want Fries with That? Fries are excellent, but pintxos are better.
Seats? Some stools are available, but standing at the bar is the most fun.
After I downed my second glass of cider, reckless thoughts fired through my mind. Had I made a mistake by skipping the escalivada pinxto? What about the meatballs with hazelnut romesco? And considering there were fresh oysters being shucked nearby, wasn't it my duty to try them? Which is to say, Barcito isn't a traditional stand—or at least not one that I'm used to visiting for this column.
Chicago has chef Ryan Poli to thank for bringing this to River North. Though he's also the chef of sleek and dark Tavernita located in the same building, Barcito is his ode to San Sebastian, and it's an open and airy place specializing in little snacks called pinxtos, many of which are prepared right in front of you. Most importantly, at least for me, Barcito celebrates the art of standing and eating, a subject I care deeply about. I mean, the website is standandeat.com. So while this column usually finds me stuffing my face with a hot dog and sucking back RC Cola out of a straw, I used this occasion to indulge.*
*On my own dime, of course. I swear accounting department!
But I dare anyone to order a drink without at least considering the food, which mostly consists of bite-sized little snacks called pintxos. They are the soul of Barcito. The most flavorful is probably Escalivada ($3), a mix of roasted peppers with a creamy almond romesco and salty goat cheese.
But half the fun is the variety, and you can't go wrong with any of them. Sweet and succulent little shrimp crown the shrimp brochette ($3), with only a smear of hazelnut picada and aioli needed to round out the flavors. Set ten of these in front of me and I'll finish them all. A creamy chickpea base provides the foundation for the light and acidic artichoke ($3).
To execute everything to order in such a confined space, the dishes are stripped down and loaded with just a few intensely flavorful ingredients. Take the serrano ham bocadillo ($4), a crusty little hunk of bread rubbed with tomato and topped with nothing more than thin slices of ham and manchego. Is there a better ham and cheese sandwich around?
Though I shared many of the pinxtos with my wife, they are really bite-sized and built for one. The Pica Pica section ("bites to pick at") of the menu, however, is where you'll find the shareable plates, including the fillets of white anchovies ($5) bathed in fruity olive oil, which are mild enough to eat whole with no embellishment.
Greg's Meatballs ($9), made from Wagyu beef and pork and drenched in a hazelnut romesco, didn't initially sound like they'd be easy to share, but just spear them with one of the wooden toothpicks and go for it. Each is absurdly tender.
It wasn't until I encountered the frites bravas ($5) that anything even remotely didn't work. The fries were excellent—crunchy, crusty, and yet still pillowy on the inside—but the mild bravas sauce felt tame and restrained. Luckily, the fries also came with a side of creamy aioli, which more than made up for it.
Completely absorbed in the food and slightly buzzed from the booze, it wasn't until I the oysters ($3 a piece) that I realized the genteel after work crowd had morphed into a raucous and very young one. Though food is still available, this probably marks the point where Barcito becomes a packed bar that happens to have some food options. But even then, it's worth fighting for a spot at the counter to sample just one more snack.