Rico Libre

Rico Libre, Birmingham

 

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.

Rico Libre Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Rico Libre, Birmingham

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tapas

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.

8/10

mousse

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