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BARRIO COREANO (642 Bloor West, at Manning, 416-901-5188, playacabana.ca/642-bloor, @barriocoreano) Complete dinners for $40 per person, including tax tip and an imported beer. Open Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to 2 am, Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, three steps to washrooms. Rating: NNNN
Though the signage is minimal as at most restos du jour, the Playa Cabana group's Barrio Coreano in Koreatown is hard to miss. Just look for the glowing red neon-lit storefront a couple of doors west of KFC.
We've never been fans of owner/executive chef Dave Sidhu's wildly successful Cabanas in the past, finding their American Picker decor contrived, the service either hostile or inept and the nuevo taco menu underwhelming and overpriced. Grand Electric they ain't. Yet Barrio gets it all exactly right.
The 65-seat room feels like it's been there forever, an intentionally crudely gutted space lit by old neon signs and lamps that might have once been birdcages. There are room dividers fashioned from rusted wrought iron gates and wobbly stacking chairs salvaged from an Indian cricket stadium. Even the cheap ripped-up floor tiles don't match. Think the French Quarter in N'Awlins by way of pre-Castro Havana, only set in a Tokyo back alley.
What's more, the music - a sultry mix of Marc Anthony and the Gipsy Kings (I know!) that fits the room like a glove - isn't deafening, and the servers are well informed and personable [faint here].
Barrio's carte is equally eclectic. We start with "watermelon sashimi," an obvious riff on Susur Lee's tuna and watermelon ceviche at Bent, only here fish-free, the fruit dressed with sliced kumquats, unseeded jalapeños, toasted pine nuts and a toss of pomegranate seeds in tart ponzu dressing, a steal at seven bucks. Chef's grilled calamari impresses as well, a tangle of correctly à point squid in smoky arbol chili sided with sweet 'n' salty pineapple kimchee salsa and a final splash of buttery olive oil ($14).
There are tacos (all $5 each), albeit of the Seoul-food persuasion, the best with sliced sirloin in a sauce spiked with peppery gochujang and dressed in pickled red nappa cabbage slaw, and south Korean fried chicken in sweet 'n' sour kampungki sauce, the latter on blue corn tortillas. Only the grilled octopus with red radish julienne and a minimal drizzle of wasabi misses the mark. It would be fine if there were more of everything.
And while we find no faults in the flavour department, chef's clever veggie lasagna ($16) with roasted poblano peppers and Chihuahua fundido - a mild mozzarella-like Oaxacan cheese and not the annoying little dog, our server assures - seems similarly small-portioned for a main. Frugal vegetarians are bound to feel short-changed.
But what carnivore's going to argue with the size of Barrio's Cowboy rib-eye ($39), 32 positively Flintstonian ounces of triple-A 2-inch-cut steak that's been aged for 14 days and expertly grilled to medium-rare perfection? It will easily feed four, though they'll all fight over which of them gets to gnaw the bloody bone.
And those whose eyes automatically roll back in their sockets when they hear the words "flourless chocolate cake" will have a change of heart after obliterating Coreano's stellar gluten-free version ($9 with green-tea ice cream), proof that you can sometimes have your cake and eat it, too.