Tallinn needs more cool eating places like Barrel Street Food. I say this for three reasons. First, Barrel is off the beaten path. To find it, you’ll need to head neither downtown nor to Kalamaja but out to Pelguranna on the very edge of North Tallinn. After all, why should all of Tallinn’s most interesting eating places be concentrated in just one or two locations? It’s time to spread the wealth around.
Second, you’ve got to love Barrel’s sense of style. Just their simple black and white décor is almost enough to give them instant street food cred. They’ve covered their whitewashed walls with various black graffiti stencils to focus attention on a giant graffito portrait of Jack Nicholson in his “Here’s Johnny!” moment from The Shinning (1980). My favorite design element, however, is their sink which has been built into a black and white barrel where you can wash your hands both before and after your meal. In other words, Barrel’s entire set up reads as interior design short-hand for “yeah, we’re cool.”
Beyond their location and hipster London good looks, the third – and main reason – Tallinn needs more places like Barrel is that people who work there actually care about the food they make. In fact, they even seem to love what they do. Amazing. As these guys have fully embraced the street food aesthetic of “do what you do, do it well, and then do it over and over again,” we should all wish them continued success – especially for their use of added spoonfuls of TLC.
So, what does Barrel do? Well, Barrel does wraps. Barrel even claims to make the best wraps in Estonia. Even if you’ve never been a big wrap fan (the same is true for me), you might even find yourself agreeing with them. The reason for this is not so much the wrap itself but what goes into them. Yes, these guys cook their chicken and pork “low and slow” but instead of using a smoker, they go all sous-vide on you just like in some fancy French restaurant – vacuum packing their meat and then immersing it into circulating water kept a constant 65 or so degrees for several hours. You end up with super-tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat as a result. If you don’t eat meat, no need to worry – Barrel will do a tofu wrap for you as well.
In addition to their tasty meat, the other thing which made me into a Barrel fan were their wonderful homemade sodas – apple, pear, and black currant with some occasional specials. Or to be more exact, it was not so much their homemade sodas in and of themselves but the care that Barrel puts into making them just for you. Each soda gets its own slice of orange and a spring of mint. These then get hand-muddled in front of you before the homemade syrup and soda water get added in. It is this extra step – this extra touch – which shows you just how much the guys at Barrel care about what they do and what they serve.
But let’s get back to their wraps. To accompany your choice of protein, you must decide on either rice and beans, a chopped vegetable medley, or a combination of the two. For your sauce or flavor accent, you get to choose between an onion jam, a jalapeño cheese spread, chopped radishes, spicy Korean carrots, aioli (garlic mayonnaise), or BBQ sauce. Grilled bell peppers and crumbled Feta cheese can be added as extras. If you choose rice and beans with your meat wrap and then ask for it spicy hot, you might just end up with the best unintentional Mexican-style burrito in town. Well, it is true that this particular bar is set rather low as Tallinn is pretty much of a wasteland when it comes to good Mexican food.
All of this now brings me to the wrap itself – as well as to the reason that I’ve never been a very big fan of wraps to begin with. I have a feeling that Barrel understands that their wrap – a store-bought flour Georgian-style thin lavash – is the weak link in their culinary chain. After all, they do their best to remedy the situation – and add some taste – by grilling their wraps to cook the lavash. While this does some good, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.
If the guys at Barrel want to take their food up to the next level, then they need go all Robert Rodriguez. They can start their journey by watching Rodriguez’ 10 Minute Cooking School clip of his Sin City Breakfast Tacos (originally one of the Sin City DVD extras but now available on YouTube as well). In it, Rodriguez speaks the immortal words: “First step, flour tortillas – get those flour tortillas, the ones you usually find at the store, you know, they feel like rubber, get them out of the fridge and throw them in the trash. They are garbage.” Harsh, yes. But no truer words have ever been spoken in the World of Wraps.
And so, if Barrel were to start making their own flour tortillas following Rodriguez’ easy recipe, their wraps might even become fantastic. Sadly, it is the rubbery texture and mouth-feel of their store-bought lavash which is holding Barrel back from achieving true street food greatness. Fortunately, the solution is simple. All Barrel needs to do is to apply the same love, care, and attention to making their wraps that they do to cooking their meats or making their sodas. Then, and only then, might Barrel become Tallinn’s first Street Food Legends. As they work on their new wraps, Barrel could always offer a wrap-less “bowl” or cut a deal with Kalamaja’s Secret Georgian Bakery to make fresh thin lavash for them each day. Me, I’m looking forward to the day that I truly learn to love wraps and become a regular Barrel customer.
How do you get to Barrel? Well, if you’re young and you’re hip, you could always get your Vans on and then bike or skateboard out to Puhangu 71. (Barrel is run by fellow skaters – note the board hanging from its ceiling.) If you lack your own wheels of any kind, then you can always take the workhorse number 40 bus out to Barrel from Viru Keskus (Viru Center). Just ignore Google maps which will lead you astray and tell you that you need to change buses. Your goal is to stay on the 40 bus until the end of the line – and then keep on going as it turns around and heads back downtown. Guess an AI can’t bend its head around that concept quite yet. Anyways, get off at the Vihuri bus stop after you pass Stroomi Rand (Stroomi Beach) and you’ve just about made it to Barrel. Barrel is open from Noon to 9 PM seven days a week and, as an extra bonus, you can see the Baltic Sea from their front stoop. You’ll recognize Barrel Street Food by the cool white & black half-barrel hanging on their outside wall. Enjoy!
Image: Barrel’s minimalist barrel sticker – just perfect for your board or your bike!