By Sergio Arvizu-Rivera ’23
After 18 years in the valley, Barrio Café, owned by chef Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, is in jeopardy of closing due to COVID-19.
Barrio Café opened in 2002 after chef Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza came back from her tour around Mexico. Since the opening of Barrio, Chef Silavana’s food has been featured on Sunset Magazine, Esquire Magazine, and on the Food Network’s Diners Drive Ins and Dives.
Chef Silvana was forced to close Barrio Café Gran Reserva’s doors in early March of 2020, and now only the original Barrio Café remains open.
But with the rise of the pandemic and newfound plumbing problems in her restaurant the fate of Barrio Café is not looking well. “If we cannot find a way past this, it’s over. Plumbing problems totaling well over $20K plus COVID… This is looking bleak,” said Chef Silvana.
According to the Arizona Restaurant Association, 10%-12% of over 10,000 restaurants in Arizona have closed since March of 2020, which is over 1,000 restaurants in one year. This is a major increase in restaurants closing since it is estimated that only 3% of restaurants close every year.
Steve Chucri, CEO and president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, stated in an interview with ABC15 that 2020 was “one of the roughest years” in Arizona restaurant history.
Although hundreds of restaurants tried staying open in March 2020, Chef Silvana closed her doors and fed the homeless with the help of volunteers. “”I’m worried about my fellow man,” Chef Silvana said at the time. “Giving them groceries, some dignity not having to stand in a soup line or a homeless shelter,” Chef Silvana said.
People all over the valley have been coming together in order to try and save Barrio Café and some even suggested starting a GoFundMe account for Barrio, but Chef Silvana refused and instead encouraged those who could to order takeout.
The closing of Barrio Café even got the attention of Meghan McCain, daughter of former United States Senator John McCain. “Barrio Cafe is an Arizona staple and one of my all-time favorites. This is breaking my heart – if you can, please support and get a meal from them. Support local and keep great restaurants in business,” McCain tweeted.
With the downfall of Barrio Café came the rise of restaurants that took the Barrio name, such as Barrio Queen. Barrio Queen originated in Scottsdale in 2011, but did not start having major success until mid 2020. In the past two years Barrio Queen has opened four new restaurants and one more is scheduled to open in Glendale.
This is not the first time a Mexican style restaurant has closed and others used their name. The once popular restaurant Albertos started gaining new rivals in early 2000s when they were forced to close doors to some of their restaurants, but those Albertos were quickly replaced with new variations of -bertos such as Filibertos, Robertos, and Rigobertos.
“It’s just a name,” said Maria Estrada, owner of Roberto’s Authentic Mexican Food while being questioned about the oddities of so many Bertos across the valley. “I don’t have a father or a husband or even a son with that name.”
Although the marketing strategy of using Barrio or Bertos may seem controversial, Jonothan Londoño ’10 explains that “copycatting” actually runs deep in the history of Mexican Food in the US.
“I understand why that might be upsetting. And frankly, it is a bit of a cheapshot especially if you plan on selling similar regional food to the restaurant whose name you are taking from as is the case with Barrio Cafe and Barrio Queen… There’s no better example of this than the ubiquitous Bertos restaurants, with their red, yellow, and green color scheme and familiar combo-style menus, that crowd the concrete landscape of the Valley. Filibertos isn’t even the original. A restaurant called Roberto’s which opened in 1964 in San Diego is the original ‘Bertos. An imitator took their success when he opened an ‘Alberto’s’ and it was then that former employees of Alberto’s, of the famous Tenorio family, opened the first Filiberto’s,” Londoño said.