Chef Matt Small spent three years working at Bar Nico, carefully choosing the heritage corn used to make the tortillas in house and removing five layers of flooring inside the building at 428 E. Locust St. During the pandemic, he tinkered with his taco recipes while at partner restaurant Alba, serving them to go.
Alba’s 25-year-old former sous chef is now revealing his take on modern Mexican cuisine at Bar Nico, which debuted with a tight menu in the East Village. Diners can find a range of bourbon, mezcal and tequila behind the bar, take-out tacos and a narrow dining room with lime-green seating in the former home of the Continental, which moved around the corner in June.
Owner Jason Simon ― the restaurateur behind American restaurant Alba in the East Village, Mediterranean-inspired Eatery A on Ingersoll Avenue, and brunch and fried chicken specialist Motley Street Tavern and Parlor pizzeria in Beaverdale ― worked with Smart about the Mexican restaurant. Last week, during a preview with friends and family, he worked the pass and rushed orders to make sure every dish was perfect.
After:Jason Simon’s Bar Nico with modern Mexican vibes will soon open in the East Village
Bar Nico menu
The menu starts with corn; the restaurant’s mantra, “sin maiz, no hay paiz”, means that without corn, there is no country. Masa, heirloom organic Mexican corn, is the cornerstone of the ingredients here with 4,000 pounds stored in the basement. It appears in everything from fries and salsa that come with spiced peanuts and hummus, with the fries prepared daily and cooked to order, to a smothered quesadilla topped with Oaxacan string cheese and chihuahua cheese (made house) and smooth enfrijolada. A touch of black truffle enhances the dish.
Corn also finds other ways on the menu. Tetela, a pancake stuffed with potatoes and cheese, comes with salmon roe, while a pork empanada includes pickled pineapple. Taco John’s fans can order the “olé” masa, an ode to potato olés with queso fresco and salsa verde.
“We just want to do bad Mexican food,” said Garrett Dotsch, Alba’s general manager, who put together Bar Nico’s carefully curated wine list to go with the food.
An aquachile―a spicy Mexican ceviche―comes with Hawaiian sweet shrimp and a little maria blood medley while a coconut ceviche uses grilled octopus and bay scallops with sesame and avocado to refreshing seafood platters.
For entrees, the list includes grilled octopus with chimichurri, Berkshire pork knuckle with black bean mash, and Miller Farms half chicken with Colorado mole. These dishes cost between $21 and $29.
By far the largest section of the menu covers tacos, with stuffed versions of braised ribs and sauerkraut (yes, sauerkraut), chorizo verde, shrimp masa tempura for an Asian feel, carnitas , breaded walleye and even sweet potato or mushrooms. They range from $10 to $14 for an order of two.
Should we order for dessert? A Basque-style dulce de leche cheesecake for $9.
After:Von Maur sets opening date for downtown Jordan Creek
Cocktails at Bar Nico
Bar Nico has a cocktail list that includes a Brazilian daiquiri, el Pajero with mezcal and velvet falernum, and Apropos with raspberry cream and tequila reposado. Cocktails range from $9 to $14. Find Modelo on tap as well as bottles and cans of Iowa and Mexican beers.
Stop by Tuesday to Thursday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The front room serves take-out tacos for the first hour of operation. Finally, there will be a late night happy hour.
In the meantime, savor modern Mexican cuisine.
Bar Nico, 428 E. Locust St., Des Moines; 515-243-0611.