Thursday, June 13, 2024

Barra in Somerville’s Union Square offers enmoladas – two housemade mole enchiladas with chicken breast, sesame seeds and a cream drizzle. (Photo: Tom Meek)

You can find a good taqueria pretty easily this side of the Charles: Felipe’s, Taco Party and Chivo are some best bets. But there are few places that give you that true cantina vibe and a good margarita – Taco Party, the vegetarian taco bar, offers a good marg, but no one would call it a cantina. It’s more like a hip pit stop. Felipe’s, despite its marg bar, feels like a grab-and-go student watering hole. Barra in Union Square is more the real deal, a dark, neon-lit bar with cozy backrooms and generous drinks served in a sculpted highball glass.

Barra, which opened nearly four years ago in conjunction with Celeste, the Peruvian fine-dining spot next door – a sister outpost La Royal is in Cambridge’s Huron Village – slings Mexico City inspired-cuisine that brims with quality and authenticity. The menu covers the basics while checking the “unique” box as well. On the tried and true you’ve got tacos that come on hand-pressed, housemade blue-corn tortillas, hearty and pliable and not like your typical, thin double-layered soft taco serving that feels like it may fall apart in your hands. That’s not a possibility here. Your filling options are fried fish, sautéed shrimp with a potato purée, pork al pastor and a quesabirria, a lightly fried taco filled with marinated beef that comes with a dipping sauce on the side.

Among the appetizers are tuna sashimi and grilled octopus tostadas, both with avocado and aioli accents, and a tetela, a fried corn pocket stuffed with refried beans and Oaxaca cheese and topped with a cactus salad, grasshoppers and molcajete salsa. It’s not far off from an empanada – and if you’re wondering about those grasshoppers, you hardly notice them in the mix with the mild, zesty salsa and cactus salad garnishes. You can order it without the grasshoppers, but why? (Grasshoppers are also mixed in with pepitas, cashews, chile ancho and garlic in a Cantina Peanuts snack at Barra, while there are grasshopper mini-tacos at Tu y Yo in Somerville’s Powder House Square.)

Barra has mains too: a cooked pork marinated in achiote (a subtly peppery spice; think paprika) and a beef birria plate that come with salsa and some of those hand-pressed tortillas to wrap the juicy goodness into. But let me point you to the enmoladas, two housemade mole enchiladas with chicken breast, sesame seeds and a cream drizzle that come with a moist, fluffy mound of white rice to soak up all the subtly spicy sauce. The thing that catches your eye is how dark and rich the mole sauce appears – and it is, but it’s not cloying, and has the perfect peppery nip. If you ask nicely, you can get your enmolada with cheese instead of chicken, or one of each. The plate has that down-home comfort that made me miss the old Elbow Room in Brighton and, closer to home, the Forest Cafe (three generations ago in the space Giulia now occupies).

As far as those margs go, you can also go in for a paloma, the healthier, fresh-squeezed lime juice alternative. As you sip and nosh, there’s likely to be a 1950s lucha libre movie on the TV to occupy your straying eye.

Barra, 23a Bow St., Union Square, Somerville

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.