I’ve waxed lyrical about my love of Rico Libre before. Putting aside the emotional connection I have to the building, for me it’s one of the first places I recommend to anyone who asks where they should eat in Birmingham. Its uncomplicated and unpretentious, astoundingly cheap, and always welcoming. Most importantly they know flavour. There is no room for daintiness here, everything is boldly seasoned and spiced, the pepper grinder on a constant rotation. Its authentic in the way that Spanish food does not pull any punches.
This was, I think, my sixth visit to the old Barn Street dinner since I first ate here, the food evolving slowly and consistently. With a relatively compact menu we look to much of the same parts for comfort. The chicken and chorizo dish has become a different beast, more pronounced in taste, more saucy, both literally and metaphorically. The halloumi dish working even more flavour on to the bland cheese with the help of blistered peppers and gently caramelised onion. I often think some of the strongest work is done here without meat; the bravas a simple yet staggering ode to tomato, garlic and paprika over crisped cubes of potato. My favourite is the aubergine, long slices salted and then griddled, folded over a rustic salsa and topped with the fieriest of red mojo sauces. The sauce is native to the canary islands where I have since learned the chef here honed his skills. The locals taught him well.
It’s not all perfect. A special of pork belly is a hearty slice of softly braised meat let down by a overly sweet reduction of red wine and coca cola, whilst I forgive the queenie scallops for having the roe attached because the mango salsa brings everything together with its sweetness, acidity and heat. We’re quickly back on track with the meatballs, compact and err… meaty, in a smoky sauce that begs to have the bowl wiped clean with flat breads smothered in garlic. Come to think of it, all of the sauces have the same effect. Greaseless deep fried fillets of cod in a seasoned batter finish us off with their generosity.
All of this comes at a price almost incomparable with anywhere else in the city. Dishes range generally from £3.50 to just over a fiver, throw in its BYOB policy and you’ll struggle to spend twenty quid a head before they roll you out of the door. It’s crazy value. I would be here every week if I wasn’t eating in mediocre restaurants elsewhere to keep this blog content afloat. Others are far more wise. On the night we visited we were surrounded by regular customers, all known individually by the chef who pops out occasionally, or the owner constantly doing the rounds to check that everything is okay. Of course it is. Its way better than ‘okay’. It’s a city gem, nestled in the back streets of Digbeth with no care other than to feed people well. And my favourite part of Rico Libre? They have no idea just how good they really are.