A Utah man used to critique tacos. Now he owns a restaurant where they’re made from scratch.

Kyle Kuntz and a friend launched Barrio SLC, which boasts fresh and locally sourced ingredients.

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For Kyle Kuntz, opening a taco restaurant, Barrio SLC, was a matter of putting his money where his mouth is.

“I’ve always been a food guy,” said Kuntz, Barrio SLC’s owner, “I actually used to travel a lot with a really good friend of mine. … Anytime we were out of Utah, anytime we were stopping for food, it always seemed to be tacos.”

When Kuntz and his friend, Jason, stopped for tacos, they always critiqued them. Eventually, Kuntz said, “We both just said, ‘You know, if we’re going to critique them, we should probably try it ourselves and see how we do.’”

And so, Barrio was born in 2019.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Barrio SLC, a taco place at 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

Kuntz said he doesn’t have a culinary background, but he and Jason often competed together in barbecue competitions, such as the Jack Daniels Invitational in Lynchburg, Tennessee. “I was one of the kids that every morning liked to get up and cook something, try to surprise my mom with something for breakfast,” he said.

Kuntz grew up in West Valley City, he said, and tasted lots of good, authentic Mexican food. (According to U.S. Census data from July 2022, 40% of the residents of West Valley City identify as Hispanic or Latino.)

When Jason found a location with a sprawling outdoor patio space, at 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, Kuntz said he was sold on the dream.

“We weren’t even close to ready to open a place yet. We were just talking about doing it,” Kuntz said. Even so, they visited the next day, and by the end of the day, they had signed a lease.

The location is an old house, which once was home to a nail salon. The place is eclectic and fun, fitting the vibe of businesses on 900 South, aka Harvey Milk Boulevard. “Barrio” means “neighborhood,” and the name fits perfectly — even if, as Kuntz said, they picked the name just because they liked the sound of it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A painting by Utah artist Julia Hill hangs on a wall at Barrio SLC, a taco place at 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

A fireplace sits inside, below a portrait, one of several artworks there by Utah artist Julia Hill, of a woman with a “Barrio” tattoo. The patio is inviting on a nice day, but there’s enough room to sit comfortably inside, too.

The menu at Barrio boasts several varieties of taco meats, including such standards as pollo asado. There’s the cochinita pibil, which is pork roasted in banana leaves with achiote spice, sour orange, cinnamon and clove. Or arrachera, which is seared wagyu steak. There are two vegetarian options: Chorizo vegano, a plant-based take on Mexican sausage, and calabacitas, a sauteed and spiced mix of zucchini, corn and onion.

The menu also features burritos, salad, nachos and jalapeño reposado (jalapeño peppers stuffed with cream cheese and the protein of one’s choice).

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Assorted tacos at Barrio SLC, 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

The side dishes include poppers (bacon-wrapped jalapeños), pozole (a Mexican soup), and “street corn in a cup.” The poppers and street corn are among the restaurant’s most popular items, and Kuntz recommended them for first-timers.

Barrio SLC also has a sizable drinks menu, with such cocktails as a hibiscus margarita and a “limonada roja” (Tito’s Handmade vodka, fresh raspberry, lime and cane sugar), and a selection of tequilas.

Kuntz’ idea of what makes a perfect taco — quality meat and salsa — informs the food served at Barrio SLC. “I’m very conscious of our food,” he said, which is why, for example, it took two months to perfect their recipe for carne asada.

“Everything you eat here is 100% our recipes — homemade,” he said, a lesson he learned from his days critiquing other people’s tacos. “We’re not buying bulk product from somebody else and then cooking it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A hibiscus margarita at Barrio SLC, a taco place at 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

It’s all made in-house with fresh ingredients, he said, or locally sourced, like their corn tortillas from La Flor.

“From our steak that we cut every day, to our cochinita pibil that we cook, wrap it all up, get it in the oven and let it slow cook all night long,” Kuntz said.

All their sauces, at a station inside, are made daily by hand — from blending tomatillos to chopping of serrano peppers. One downside, he said, is that, because there are no preservatives, whatever’s left at the salsa bar at the end of the night gets tossed out.

Kuntz said he leans a lot on his main cook, Francisco Loya, whom Kuntz calls “Frankie.” They work together, Kuntz said, tweaking each other’s recipes, with the employees tasting them and voting on which are best.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brooke Record picks up an order at Barrio SLC, a taco restaurant at 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, pictured on Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

One can taste the time it took to perfect recipes in the freshness of the salsas, and the juiciness of the meat.

It’s a lot of work, Kuntz said, but he doesn’t mind. The tacos taste fresh, and it shows on the plate and in the prices on the menu — from $3 per taco for the simple chicharron (pork) to $6 each for the wagyu steak, shrimp or surf & turf, which has both.

Kuntz said he aims to open a second Barrio in the next year or so, and he’s looking at spots in Lehi and Draper. It’s all about finding the right location, he said.

Building a restaurant empire, though, isn’t the point, he said.

“If you just want to make a bunch of money and have a bunch of restaurants, you would end up buying processed food,” he said. “But for me, this isn’t my main source of income. This is more of a retirement plan down the road. So I care about it. I would rather have someone come in and say I’m overpriced and not want to come back than come in and say the food was horrible.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Barrio poppers - smoked jalapeño bacon wrapped poppers filled with cream cheese at Barrio SLC, a taco place at 282 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.