It was through idle conversation that I found out that Rico Libre sits on the site that once was Barn St Diner. Now I’m sure that some greasy spoon on the back streets on Digbeth has little relevance to most, but it does to me. I was born from that cafe. Well, kind of. My teenage mother worked in there as a waitress when she met her future husband, who had happened to pop in for some breakfast. Some bizarre courtship started that involved my dad going there frequently to see mom, who occasionally put Smarties in to his sausage and egg sandwich, just to let him know that she cared. Amazingly from this sprung the bastard offspring of my younger brother and I, as well as a 30 year marriage year that is still going strong. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye and I haven’t even got to the food yet.
Inside the vivid green frontage of Rico Libre still lies the skeleton of a greasy spoon. The square building has a dining area which takes over half of the space, with simple cotton sheet splayed tables, the menu on a chalk board and a painting of a bull on the walls that not only echo’s the Spanish food served here, but also Birmingham’s only Bullring which is just up the road. There is a large kitchen space, once where my mother ruined many a breakfast, and a passageway to the toilet where my father did not play the dusty old piano. You get the feeling they are going to need this area for more tables very soon.
What they still share with a greasy spoon is the desire to feed people well and at a reasonable price. They concentrate on the staples of Spain, the sort of food you find if you veered away from Sticky Vicky and into the side streets. Grilled halloumi had a bitter twang from a rustic salsa of tomato and basil, whereas more of the salsa came with grilled aubergine. The aubergine, properly salted to retain some bite, was given life by a red mojo sauce full of garlic and chilli heat. It’s difficult to find a good mojo sauce outside of its home in the Canary Isles. This one is worth a journey all on its own.
Plump king prawns came drenched in a spicy oil with more garlic and chilli, whereas chicken “Marbella” nearly never got ordered on the chance it would be served by the cast of TOWIE. Thankfully the thighs were fantastic things, all moist in a sauce of reduced white wine, littered with peppers and chorizo. Another chicken dish paid homage to the north African influence in Spanish cuisine with more of the thighs in a intense sauce of cinnamon, cumin, and, I think, preserved lemon. The dish given richness by the pellets of soft boiled quails eggs. We further pile the plates high with garlic heavy mushrooms and crisped up fried potatoes in a sauce galvanized by lots of hot and spicy paprika.
Dessert options are limited, but with three tapas dishes for twelve quid, most will be too full to make it to this stage. As greedy as I am, I worked my way through a huge portion of rum and pineapple granita which was in essence a frozen Pina Colada. There was also a light passion fruit mousse in a chocolate cup – both are refreshing ways to finish, given the punchy flavours on every dish previously served. There is nothing delicate or refined about the cooking here; its bold and in your face, exactly how good Spanish food should be. Everything served has the sole purpose of tasting good, which should the goal of every restaurant, regardless of the cuisine. Mom and Dad found happiness in this little old building on Barn Street, now thanks to Rico Libre they wont be the only ones.