Years, decades, ago, when my kids were little, a Sunday afternoon run to Velvet Freeze on Gravois, with its giant ice cream cone standing proud, was an occasional treat they still remember. All these years later, I visit Cherokee Street, not so far away, and either with family or alone, slip into Neveria la Vallesana CK 's free-standing ice cream shop for a paleta, the handmade Mexican ice pop. Paletas now have a sort of street chic, like food trucks, with the glossy food magazines talking about them and sometimes giving recipes, but this was before that. A neveria, by the way, is an ice cream shop. And more about paletas in a moment.
La Vallesana began in what was originally an ancient gas station that then became a Dairy Queen back in the day when walk-up-windows were the standard. It morphed from that into, as I recall, a generic soft-ice-cream stand and then into la Vallesana, a crowded little Mexican restaurant with food that fit the neighborhood, not the drive-thru. I believe the small storefront across the street came later. A few years ago, they expanded the dining room, created a covered outdoor dining area, and the corner really began to come alive.
A couple of recent visits with the next generation of eaters along for the fun, proved to be satisfying, and not just because it's great to see kids trying new things and wolfing them down. The lack of fancy-schmancy was just fine with them. They weren't dismayed by the lack of a liquor license or whining that there weren't chips and salsa plunked down on the table. Small restaurants have to be taken on their own terms, a variation of Pollack's First Law:
Restaurants set their standards by the way they price themselves.
And it's particularly nice that a restaurant so authentic is so welcoming and open to folks from farther afield than their original clientele.
Guacamole is, not surprisingly, first rate, cool, slightly chunky, thoughtfully seasoned, with warm chips. The house salsas are a red, sharpish and smoky, and a jade-green, spicier and more complex. The tacos here are the simple corn tortillas, soft, topped with meat, chopped white onion and cilantro and sided with a piece of lime for squeezing over. Those same meats appear on tortas, fat, wonderfully messy sandwiches on a toasted Mexican roll. (Photo at bottom of column.)The spicy shrimp version wasn't incendiary, had plenty of shrimp in a smoky chipotle sauce, along with the avocado, refried beans, cheese and salad-ish stuff that are traditional. (Still tasty after a night in the fridge, too.)
Quesadillas are fatter than the flat ones usually seen; ours, stuffed with asada, grilled strips of beef, flared open with considerable panache, giving an appearance of a giant soft taco with a flour tortilla. Alongside came more guac, sour cream, lettuce and tomatoes, to play with as desired. The beef was lean and as close to tender as inexpensive, well-done beef can get, a little chewy, yes, but full of savor. Enchiladas wear a green sauce that's wonderful, the citrus notes from its tomatillos dancing merrily across the nose and tongue. We opted for lengua, or tongue, and carnitas, or pork, after reassuring Cesar, the server that, yes, we'd eaten tongue before. The rookie eater would have found nothing dismaying in tongue, which is closely-grained, un-fatty, and mild. (It's a muscle, none of the texture or flavor differences associated with organ meats.) And while the lengua was good, it was the carnitas that cozied up to that sauce and said, "Oh, honey, do we belong together or what?" The richness of the pork and the slight acidity of the sauce were a perfect match. Even chicken fajitas, normally a safe and boring choice, satisfied, the meat still moist, the onions and peppers freshly cooked.
When one of us ordered a Coke, it was a Mexican Coke that appeared, and I was curious about what the young relative would say when I explained that it was made a little differently. "I can taste the difference," she said. "The sweetness isn't the same." Shows promise, I said to myself. La Vallesana also has aguas fresca, the fruit-and-ice drink. The strawberry tasted like fresh strawberries, creating much buzz at the table.
And then there were the paletas. They, too, are made with fresh fruit, often leaving them slightly chunky. More than chunky, in fact, was a strawberries-and-cream rendition with rich vanilla ice cream holding big chunks of fresh berries, dramatically handsome. Pineapple with chili was the color of a ripe mango, very spicy and a little salty, the astonishment of biting into something frozen and slowly realizing this was chili-hot quite a mind game. (Mango and cucumber both also come in chili variations, at least intermittently.) Blackberry, a dark mauve in color, was seedless but otherwise clearly the real thing, and coconut kept good-sized bits of the flesh in its mixture, making for more fun. Even the chocolate went the extra kilometer, with cinnamon and a little heat that the young lady holding the stick didn't expect but found herself enjoying. There's also a case of housemade ice cream flavors, but I never seem to get farther than paletas.
Service ranges from attentive to a little more casual, but it's usually easy to flag someone down, especially inside. And good explanations are available, although the menu is completely bilingual with a section particularly explaining meat choices.
Don't go expecting Tex-Mex, don't go expecting chain resto-food, don't go for drinking rather than eating. Just go.
2801 Cherokee St.
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Outside only
Sandwiches and Entrees: $5-$13