A very good thing about St. Louis in the 21st century is that it's becoming easier and easier to find Mexican food that is not the hamburger-based, big bucks-advertising-budget stuff from chains. And we've come across two small, modest neighborhood places that offer charming, fresh food. Both style themselves taquerias, which makes them the equivalent of sandwich shops, but with a few larger items on the menus. And if the menus look similar, that's because the taquerias belong to couples whose wives are sisters.
Taqueria la Pasadita is in an old Taco Bell, ironically enough. It's a very small one, however, and on a quiet evening with only a couple of other tables occupied, we had what we intended to be a light meal. But we're always led astray by interesting menus that offer new tastes. After fresh, hot, salty chips with a salsa smoky from chipotle chiles, some guacamole was almost perfectly smooth and very pale green; it worked well with added salsa but was mostly not exciting. We also knocked back a couple of tamales, fat boys filled with shredded pork and a particularly tasty cornmeal exterior, nice and moist. They arrived with a squeeze bottle of a green tomatillo salsa, tangy and citrusy, spicy but not mouth-burning. (They're usually an entree, but we asked for, and received them solo.)
La Pasadita's tacos, like those of many of the family operations, come on two soft corn tortillas, garnished with chopped white onion and cilantro. Chorizo sausage, crumbly and full of cumin flavor, was one of our choices, and so was chicharron (shown above), or pork skin, prepared chewy-tender here, rather than fried to a chip-like consistency, and sitting in a sauce with more of the smoky chipotles. Not a dish for those restricted in their fat intake, and probably the spiciest item we tasted here. Lengua, or beef tongue, came in neat little cubes, tender and meaty, but quite lean, a real team player with the other ingredients. And a taco al pastor, described as barbecued pork, isn't quite what we think of as barbecued, but it was nicely porky, with the traditional notes of pineapple for contrast.
But it was the tripe that made us gasp. We're not sure exactly what the cook did, except chop it more finely than we've ever had, and saute it, but it was beautifully seasoned, creamy and rich, with almost none of the flavor associated with tripe. Quite remarkable, like nothing we've had before anywhere. We also tried a gordita, a round of cornmeal dough baked and split so it can be filled with taco-like fillings. The texture is good, and a fine balance between fillings and dough that worked very well. Ours had some pork, a little lengua and some of the tripe, along with out-of-season tomatoes.
We drank horchata, the milk-rice beverage that's sweet and flavored with cinnamon. There's beer and Mexican sodas, including Mexican Coca-Cola in half-liter bottles, also available, too. The Coke, also available in a growing number of grocery stores, is sweetened with cane sugar instead of the far more common, and less expensive high fructose corn syrup.
Taqueria la Pasadita
2336 Woodson Rd., Overland
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No
At the corner of Olive Boulevard and Woodson Road, in a new location very close to its old one, Taqueria La Monarca and its market are equally simple, a windowless dining room that manages not to be suffocating, a menu that's nearly identical, although minus the tripe tacos, and with slightly different prices. Mostly, though, we focused on different items. A taco-off wasn't what we meant to do. (Although it occurs to us that a city-wide taco-off might be fun sometime....)
A surprise was the fact that chips and salsa do not arrive unless specifically ordered. The one overlap was a couple of tamales, which arrived on an entree plate. The tamales were slightly drier than their cousins, but the filling was chunkier and more generous. Both a green and a red sauce arrived, the green almost heat-free but flavorful, the red much more forthright. Refried beans were above average.
Menudo is a weekend special at both spots. The tripe stew is known as a hangover remedy, so it's timed appropriately. La Monarca's version is serious stuff. No posole, or hominy, lots of tripe and lots of heat. The traditional mix-ins of chopped cilantro and onion, as well as dried oregano, arrived alongside.
Tortas, the Mexican sandwiches, can be very rewarding, and the “mixta, Hawaiana o Cubana” turned out to be just that. Piles of meat, a slice of ham, some cheese, of course, and slices of avocado, pineapple, tomato and jalapeno all warmed slightly to make the roll crunchy and melt the cheese. The usual Cubana is finished in a plancha that flattens it; this one, unflattened, had a soft, almost brioche-like texture. It's huge-and excellent for lunch the next day.
While the torta was outstanding, it was the huaraches that blew u s away. Named for the sandals whose sized), they begin with a flour dough patted out and deep-fried to a crunchy crispness. That's topped with a modest-sized smear of beans, the meat of choice, lettuce, tomato, cheese and a drizzle of crema, the Mexican version of sour cream. We chose suadero, described on the menu as grilled pork. The cut seems much like brisket, and the result was outstandingly porky, crisp, juicy and full of flavor, and the combination of flavors and textures in each bite was downright seductive, even without salsa.
Flan for dessert was surprisingly un-dense, although it had the characteristic bubbles, and the surprise continued when we found that the “caramel” around it was butterscotch-flavored. Not bad, just uncommon.
Affable service at both places, just what you expect from tiny, family-owned spots. And both are non-smoking.
Taqueria La Monarca
8531 Olive Blvd., University City
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair