One of the original members of Joe's Class of '72, the restaurants that he said changed St. Louis dining, Balaban's started hot and stayed that way.
Probably my strongest memories of it come from the sleep-hungry hours after working an overnight shift in an ICU at Barnes. Sometimes one of my colleagues and I would decide that our spirits needed more encouragement than our bodies did, and we would head for an indulgent breakfast in the cafe section. Perhaps what the bodies were craving was that sunlight falling through the east-facing windows as we could finally relax. But it was the hot croissants, gently pulled apart as their flakes fell everywhere, that rewarded us. Coffee, delicious and so different from the vile industrial stuff at the hospital, was almost inhaled - we were too young for it to keep us awake when we went home and off to bed. I know there was orange juice, too, but I remember it only for how it looked on the table. The cafe was always nearly empty, so we could talk shop, in the clinically specific, horrifying-to-outsiders way that nurses can do.
Years later, after I married Joe and was living a very different life, we went to Herb Balaban Karp's memorial service down the street. Everyone returned to the restaurant - specifically, the bar, of course - to drink and reminisce and generally schmooze. It was a daylight version of the late-night bar gatherings that happened in the old days. But no guy with a moustache and suspenders to keep an eye on things.
It's always been part of the New York mystique that you can see absolutely anything there. So on an evening not so long ago, I was amused but not nonplussed when, as I sat at a counter overlooking the kitchen at Tacombi El Presidente, the chef nonchalantly slammed down a sheet pan containing two hogs' heads. Not hogshead as in a large barrel, but the real things. Not native to the Flatiron neighborhood where the restaurant is located, I'm sure, but they showed no signs of freezer burn. I grinned broadly and watched a young couple nearby gasp and then quickly go into oh-isn't-that-quaint mode.
I'd wandered into the restaurant, where I'd been before, for a pre-dinner drink and nosh. El Presidente is part of what's become a five-restaurant group, all serving casual Mexican food that has nothing to do with the ilk of Taco Bell. It's not a place for a quiet dinner, all tile and hard surfaces, and not a sombrero in sight. I've learned that after about 7 p.m., it's loud, generally the habitat of well-dressed Gen X's getting off work. A few exceptions - one table, off to one side, of seven older gentlemen in near-identical dark suits all looked extremely serious, almost grim.
The menu is cocktails, tacos, two quesadillas and some sides. Interestingly, the two most expensive non-alcoholic items on the menu are on the side dish list. One is a seafood cocktail. The other is their guacamole, and despite it costing $12, it might well be the don't-miss item on the menu. If you want a floor show with your meal, ask to sit at the counter facing the kitchen. You won't see as much of the other diners, but the action is fun. Soup is ladled, tacos assembled, al pastor sliced off the rotisserie, and from time to time, a line cook tosses the contents of an immense skillet, maybe 16 inches across, in the air, revealing a shower of yellow corn kernels whirling and being caught as cooking proceeds.
That guacamole is fresh and not ice-cold, chunky with pieces of avocado and tomato, nicely seasoned. The chips are uncommonly tasty. My first visit, I asked about why it was so good and a waiter waved his hand in the air and said, "Well, you know they use a lot of pork back there." Maybe they cook the chips in lard? I thought. No, they don't, the chef told me the night of the hogs' heads, shaking his head at the server. But they're fresh, and thick enough to scoop up the guac without crumbling. Four house-made salsas are in squeeze bottles on the table, but it's good enough to down unadorned. And the serving is, in a word, immense. If you're dining alone, it'll be your entree.
Tacos? El Presidente answers the call with ten varieties, including two vegetarian ones, sweet potato and black bean, as well as corn, poblano chiles and cheese. Barbacoa is shredded, deeply beefy in flavor, wonderfully moist. Sonoran shrimp charmed, a little spicy, some crunch from a few bits of cabbage, the shrimp not overcooked and just the right size for a taco, altogether quite notable.
And then there was the pork. The hogs' heads had led to a conversation with chef Jason Debriere,
who told me that he goes through 900 pounds of heritage pork a week. His carnitas were crispy, with a little hit of cumin, but like all the other tacos, definitely not dry. And the taco al pastor, from the rotisserie, the axis being topped with a giant fresh pineapple (just like the one I talked about a few weeks ago at El Morelia on St. Charles Rock Road) , was genius. It included a half-circle of grilled fresh pineapple in it, a graceful touch considering how much al pastor is out there without the traditional pineapple.
That corn flying around the saute pan arrives in the form of esquites, the corn sauteed with cotija cheese and topped with a chipotle mayonnaise, a seriously substantial dish worthy of respect. I'm not quite sure where it would fit in with a menu like this, but I'd eat it happily at any point in the meal.
Thinking about St. Louis restaurant-goers, I asked Debriere, who said he'd made tacos of all kinds of ingredients, including rabbit and goat, if there was anything his customers wouldn't eat. Debriere, who isn't a New York native, said, "People here will eat anything, especially if you charge a little more for it." Ah, psychology and the human palate.
Serious cocktails with lots of references to the Latin part of the Americas - a pina colada, not the kind made in a blender with ice, but a serious shaken drink on the rocks, a daquiri, which had a surprising note of anise in it, and a paloma, tequila with fresh grapefruit and a little club soda, very dry and very refreshing.
Good food and interesting people- and kitchen-watching. If you need to talk, you can always go for a walk afterwards.
30 W. 24th St., New York City
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Tacos and Entrees: $4-$14
When I was a teenager I dreamed of living in New York. Visions of a tiny apartment in a brownstone and interesting people, subways and the Automat, and, oh, yes, loads of tiny shops with interesting merchandise, not the sort of thing I eyed at F.W. Woolworth in Flat River. Now New Yorkers revel in the appearance of big-box stores ("Can you buy that at Best Buy?" recently demanded an acquaintance who lives in Manhattan.) I don't completely understand it; the small-town dreamer still lives in part of my soul.
Said dreamer was more than happy, then, to finally make it to Bonnie Slotnik's Cookbooks. Somehow, on many trips to New York, I'd never gotten around to it, and when I did, the last couple of times, the shop was closing - but then moving, thank goodness, when she found a great new location. Now she's settled in and I headed for East Second Street, in the East Village, between the Bowery and Second Avenue. Located in one of those partly-below-ground-level basements (technically called an English basement), the new location is homey, welcoming and well lit. It even has access to the back garden, where there's a place to sit and peruse whatever books you're considering buying. While it's technically one room, there are niches and cubbyholes enough to leave a customer always finding something they'd overlooked.
Please note these are, almost entirely, used cookbooks. There are also old pamphlets and magazines - I came away with a vintage World War II cooking magazine. (For a major selection of new cookbooks, there's the great Kitchen Arts & Letters uptown on Lexington Avenue.) Prices are more than the Book Fair, but not heart-stopping. Cookbook geeks like me can spend an afternoon browsing, as long as they please don't pull the books out by the spine. Period pieces like an elderly stove and tablecloths from the mid-20th Century relax the atmosphere even more. Bonnie's as much a host as a businessperson - when she found out I was from St. Louis, her first question was, "Do you know Tim Brennan?" Well, yes, he made our wedding cake.
Usual hours are afternoons only, six days a week - the closing day may vary so check her phone recording. But she says she's willing to open odd hours if need be. The block also has some interesting interior decor shops if you need to kill time until the (usually 1 p.m.) opening. There's a subway stop nearby and several bus lines.
Bonnie Slotnik Cookbooks
28 E. Second St.
It's autumn, the time when the line between the real, the was-real and the not real sometimes becomes very blurry indeed. To mark the season, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings us "Angel Street". Or, just to get things off to a nicely unsure start, "Angel Street (Gaslight)". The play, which opened in London with the single word, became "Angel Street" when it moved to Broadway. The Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer film, just to fog things up a bit more, was "Gaslight".
And the gaslights in a London townhouse, circa 1880, are a key element in this mystery. Inhabited by a couple who bought it six months ago, Bella and Jack Manningham, it doesn't seem to have brought any happiness to them. Indeed, the household has come under increasing attention as Bella, alas, seems headed to some sort of psychiatric episode, behaving erratically, forgetting things - or is she perhaps lying? Jack, while admittedly a product of his time, is, even by those standards, behaving in a - here's a good Victorian word - beastly fashion. Sneering and sarcastic, demeaning and threatening, even before he's launched into that mode in the opening scene, it's clear Bella is afraid and defensive. Her mother died insane, and Jack brings that into the dialogue early and often, or at least often enough.
The words "gaslight" as a verb and "gaslighting" as a gerund have now entered into the language. so I'm not spoiling things to say that Jack is trying to push Bella around the bend. Or at least near enough to it that whatever the laws and custom were on such a thing that he can put her away without difficulty. The household staff, a housekeeper, Elizabeth, and a pert maid, Nancy, can only watch. Well, Nancy is interested in more than watching, one realizes quickly.
Jack goes out for a while to his club, and before Bella can retire, there's a man at the door. Who is this man Rough? No idea if he's related to the crime dog of the same name, but he says he's a retired policeman.
Janie Brookshire plays Bella, pale and fragile but still strong enough to be desperate instead of resigned to her fate. It's a tougher role than we realize at first, and Brookshire grabs it with elan. Jack, Clark Scott Carmichael, is so dastardly he manages to elicit a few hisses at his curtain call, but carries his role without having to stoop to histrionics. It's a performance with some carefully nuanced gestures to watch for.
Detective Rough is Geoffrey Wade. He's utterly delicious. Reassuring, energetic, charming, and just a tad eccentric, he owns the stage when he appears, needing only a white horse, perhaps. For those who watch the television show "Homicide Hunter", he's a more polished Joe Kenda. (He also ties for Best Hair in the show with Rachel Kenney's Nancy, whose lovely red hair tempts badboy Jack.)
And to make things even better for this show, the scenic design by Wilson Chin is remarkable, the set going from spookily empty-seeming to almost claustrophobic without moving a single stick of furniture. Peter Sargent's lighting is a key to all this, and Rusty Wandall's sound, including a clock ticking, raises pulses at perfect points. The only real sticking point is that Patrick Hamilton's script is more linear than might be expected. But this isn't, at heart, a murder mystery. It's a psychological thriller, and it does that. In spades.
Angel Street (Gaslight)
through November 8
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Looking for something to do this weekend? Or, better, to escape to during the week? There's a new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that calls to people like us. How did St. Louis get so wrapped up in the coffee trade?
The ladies in the picture in the left certainly look pleased with what they are about to eat - or just finished. Shall we join them?
How many stories are there about Riddle's? One Sunday night in late November of 1994, I had my wedding supper (the wonderful shiitake mushrooms) there. Alone. Joe was in the hospital recovering from emergency life-saving surgery and we moved the date of our planned nuptials up so I could take advantage of the then-new Family Medical Leave Act. "What's new?" asked chef-proprietor Andy Ayres when he left the kitchen to patrol the bar. "I got married today," I said, still a little surprised at my daring act. "Well...," he said and paused, "I guess that's good."
For a long time, Andy was the only restaurant person who knew that I, the food writer, had a day job as a chemotherapy nurse. The two occupations do seem at odds with each other until one realizes that hospital food is enough, most of the time (and all of the time back then), to drive one to maniacal searching for the good stuff. I wasn't eager to have the word out on the street. As far as I know, Andy was completely discreet.
"The Sunshine Boys" is a not-new play about a couple of not-new performers It's now running at the New Jewish Theatre. Neil Simon wrote it in 1972 about a couple of aging vaudevillians. Partners in a long-popular act, they broke up when one, Al Lewis, unilaterally decided to retire, leaving the other, Willie Clark, up a metaphorical creek without a partner. They hadn't been getting along for a good while before that, and Lewis' exit has left Clark struggling for work.
This is Neil Simon, remember. So there are plenty of first-rate one-liners that leave even the most jaded critic laughing out loud. (Simon has too many plays for almost anyone to remember all the funny lines, so some old things are indeed new again.) We meet Willie in a residential hotel where he's lived for years, hanging around in pajamas and arguing with the front desk. His only visitor is his nephew, Ben, who also has the unenviable job of being Willie's agent. Willie's memory isn't what it used to be, which makes auditioning for, say, a potato chip commercial a real challenge.
The day the play opens, Ben has brought more than low-sodium soup, this week's Variety, and a few cigars when he comes on his weekly visit to Willie. He's heard from CBS, who wants to do a big special on American comedy. Willie almost begins to preen. But then Ben explains the offer: Big bucks, yes, but conditional on the old team being reunited to do their signature sketch about a doctor. Al loudly, repeatedly, refuses. Chaos, yea, unto mayhem ensues, naturally, especially when Al actually appears.
One can't help but pay particular attention to the casting, since illness in the cast forced New Jewish and director Doug Finlayson to bring in a different Willie. John Contini stepped in, and it certainly looks like a seamless fit. Morose, bitter, agitated and gloriously unkempt, one can hardly say he glows. But he glares. Peter Mayer plays Al, nattily dressed and living peacefully with his daughter and her family in New Jersey. Mayer, an actor who's become known for another "g" verb - he's superb at glowering - turns out to have a real gift for comedy, great timing, and a real way with the crisp lines from Simon. It's an excellent pairing. Also fun to watch is the nephew, Jared Sanz-Agero, whose patience is slightly greater than his exasperation, but not much. A particular shout out to Fanny Belle-Lebby, who plays the RN - not the "nurse" in the spike-heeled pumps - for Al. She says the things to him that everyone I ever worked with has wanted to say at one time or another, and delivers it as though she'd been working with patients for years.
An amusing set from scenic designers and artists Margery and Peter Spack, especially the set for the television sketch. (Why is there a butcher's chart of a hog? And pay particular attention to the eye chart.)
More fun than political debates.
The Sunshine Boys
through November 1
The New Jewish Theatre
Wool Studio Theater
2 Millstone Campus Drive
Ever have a memorable conversation with a stranger? The sort of encounters that happen in a neutral place, sitting on a train or a cross-table cafe chat that begins casually and sort of grows of its own accord? Those I've had always seemed like short stories or the genesis of novels. Maybe one of those was the beginning of Ger Thijs' play "The Kiss". Translated from the original Dutch, where its title is "De Kus", by Paul Evans, Upstream Theater is offering its American premiere.
Two people meet as they walk in the countryside in the south of the Netherlands. The woman - neither of these characters has names - is on her way to an appointment in a town about three hours distant. The man is on holiday during this autumnal period. Sparks begin to fly, and not in a good way.
Eric Dean White is the man, mostly charming and teasing and challenging, and seemingly open. This is fine work from White, teasing us, too, with possible glances at what lies beneath his character's surface. The woman is played by Lisa Tejero, not often seen on St. Louis stages. She's the perfect iron lady, under proper control until cracks begin to appear.
The two begin to walk together intermittently - arguments erupt, but they continue as the layers of who they are begin to be peeled back. Thijs' script carefully weaves the parallel narratives together so well that even when we (think) we know what's going to happen, we're still intent on the stage.
Tightly directed by Kenn McLaughlin, good lighting from Tony Anselmo, and equally relevant sound design from Michael B. Perkins and the group's artistic director, Phillip Boehm, this all adds up to a first-rate evening of theater. Between superb acting and a good script, you can't go wrong.
through October 25
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Ave.
Let's get this out of the way: On one level, it's hard for me to be objective about "Dogfight", the new musical at Stray Dog Theatre. The play, from the film of the same name, runs from the night before the JFK assasination until a year later. Three young Marines are about to leave for Vietnam. One of them has meets and has a relationship with a quiet, plain young woman that night. This was my generation: Guys who believed they were prepared, going off to war. Girls - and we were girls, not women, for the most part - writing letters and waiting and tolerating testosterone-fueled nonsense because that's mostly what you Did.
Those Marines, and some others, are taking part in a ritual that involves a party wherein they pool their money, set out to find the ugliest date they can, and the one whose date is the ugliest wins the pot, thus my use of the phrase "testosterone-fueled nonsense". The young Marine takes the very plain girl to the party and we see what happens. Peter Duchan's script, is very much of the period, the sort of thing that leaves following generations mystified as to how certain behaviors, not just dogfights, the phrase used for that party, were tolerated.
Brendan Ochs is the Marine who meets the girl, Shannon Cothran. Both are deeply believable and their voices blend well. Luke Steingruby and Kevin O'Brien are the other two Marines, bringing in an occasional touch of a Stooge (as in The Three) to go with their bravado and bluster.
Like so much of the performance art out of or dealing with that period, "Dogfight" is at times very painful to watch, the innocence, the manipulation and the war itself. A battle scene is surprisingly well staged, considering the venue. Yes, there are some funny lines, and plenty of obscenities - hey, they're jarheads, right? - but this is a serious musical, not a comedy, even though it, of necessity, glides over some of it.
Ben J. Pasek and Justin Paul's score is workable, although once again the sound balance between voices and instruments was lopsided for nearly the whole first act, lyrics drowning, leaving the audience to hope they're not missing something significant. Rob Lippert's set manages to evoke a night in San Francisco and works very well for the considerable movement that director Justin Been and choreographer Zachary Stefaniak have created.
Not a particularly easy evening, but some good challenges and good work from cast and crew.
through October 24
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
We haven't had much Filipino food in St. Louis outside of private homes. Our loss, certainly; eating new kinds of food is always an enriching experience. I'm told that in India, they believe that eating new food makes you smarter, and in light of research involving neural pathways in the brain, it certainly seems like folk wisdom once again may have nailed it.
Now a new - and very smart - option is available for the gastronomically curious. Kamayan Brunch is open Sundays only. They're a catering company who's using a facility on Olive Boulevard in University City, and this really seems to work well. The greeting is warm and the room has plenty of space between tables and around the buffets. They even offer a tour of the buffet for newcomers.
This is not a breakfast-y brunch, although they offer omelets and pancakes cooked to order. On this visit, though, everyone seemed to be heading for the Filipino food. And there is, be aware, little for vegetarians, although there are, to be sure, three kinds of rice - regular, garlic and coconut. That rice can serve as a base for a long line of interesting stew-like dishes in chafing dishes, along with the traditional pancit noodles, rather like Singapore noodles. There's an adobo, the stew - its meat base varies by chef and, apparently here, by week - that simmers in a vinegar-seasoned base to tenderize and give a nice pungency to the soy-garlic seasoning. Another dish I liked a lot was chicken Bicol Express, a coconut curry, mild and sweet, that utilizes shrimp paste as part of the stir-fry that starts it out. That ups the umami factor nicely. Another vinegar-based dish, paksiw na baboy, looks rather like pulled pork (remember those vinegar-based barbecue sauces from Carolina, of course) but has bits of even richer meat than the included pork shoulder, since it utilizes the knuckles of the hog as well. (That cartilage's slow cooking also makes the meat juices better.)
On another table, there's a roast suckling pig. It was the smallest I've ever seen, true to its name, and wonderful in its flavor and texture. I opted for the cheek when it was offered, a real delicacy, particularly rich and succulent, and with skin so crisp that Charles Lamb, he of A Dissertation upon Roast Pig, would have shed tears of joy. Also on that table was a platter of fried things, lumpia, the finger-sized egg rolls of this cuisine, some bits of fried fish, and large lacy fritters, perfectly un-greasy, with whole shrimp studded into them. Fabulous. Nearby was some longanisa, the coarsely ground, slightly sweet sausage, an easy to taste to enjoy. Much of this food, in fact, is not off-putting to the hesitant. Nothing is fiery and nothing is deeply off-putting except perhaps the little dried anchovies that are offered.
There are also two soups offered, both tart like some of the Thai soups can be, from tamarind. Puto, which look like large unbaked biscuits, are offered with one of the savory stews. They're steamed, a little sweet, sometimes used as a dessert when they have other flavors added, but possibly meant here as a base like the rice would be, but tasty on their own.
Halo-halo, the traditional dessert of crushed ice, evaporated milk, with toppings like fruit added at the pleasure of the diner, is available, with ice crushed to order. There's also a table of other sweets, many chewy with rice flour, plus a nice flan and a sweet rice porridge with fruit in it as well, perhaps my favorite.
Coffee was quite good, and refills offered. Lots of folks drinking pineapple juice, interestingly.
$24.95 for adults, including non-alcoholic beverages (they do have a liquor license), $12.95 for children. It's a large buffet, and, more important, an interesting one.
8008 Olive Blvd., University City
Sunday brunch 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.
"Heathers" might as well have been written for Scott Miller, New Line Theatre's founder. It's hard to imagine a high school musical being that full of social criticism - although perhaps less difficult to conceive of the language and sexual discussion that the show brings, social criticism and overt sexuality being part of Miller's professional habitat.
But here's "Heathers" in all its shoulder-padded glory. It's a black comedy about high school, set in the Eighties, complete with the titular triad of Heathers, high priestess and her acolytes, and a couple of testosterone-poisoned football players. Our heroine, Veronica (Anna Skidis), a senior at the school, wants to be Popular - which means running with the Heathers. She finds a way into their inner circle, but just about the same time runs into a guy who quotes Baudelaire, J.D. (Evan Fornichon). Is it coincidence he shares initials with James Dean? Or that a couple of decades before this, "JD" was slang for "juvenile delinquent"?
Skiddis is a great Veronica, wide-eyed and yet letting us see her conflict over the demands of the head Heather, (Sicily Mathenia), even as she's seduced into them, choosing the supremely superficials over her former best friend, Martha (Grace Seidel). All three of the Heathers delight with their awe-inspiring superficiality and malevolence, Mathenia with some near-unbelievable lines - starting off with the scene with the pate - and Larissa White and Cameisha Cotton as the other two. Cotton's sulk through much of the second act is particularly glorious, recognizable to anyone who's raised a teenager.
Fornichon's J.D.'s initial appearances are so near-endearing that it's difficult to realize he's not what he seems, at least at first. His nemeses, football players Omega Jones and Clayton Humburg, carry off exquisitely tasteless lines and sing "Blue", along with White and Cotton, without collapsing at the lyrics. This is as good a place as any to point out that while New Line is known for adult themes and language, "Heathers" may well beat out their "Jerry Springer The Opera", something heretofore inconceivable. (There may come a time in St. Louis where warnings like this are superfluous, but it won't be in my lifetime.)
Still, there are moments like Seidel's "Kindergarten Boyfriend", a remarkable rendition of a song of innocence that almost stopped the opening night.
Tightly directed by Miller and Mike Dowdy, and interlaced with choreographer Robin Michelle Berger's work, it fits together like Lycra. Scenic design by Rob Lippert and costumes from Sarah Porter make it feel pretty authentic.
Very funny despite some of the subject matter, it's a great opening show, well crafted and well cast, for the brand-new Marcelle Theater. This is New Line's 25th year, and they've had a long, rugged road finding a permanent home. For those of us who remember the basement at New St. Marcus and the noisy furnace that couldn't be allowed to run while there was actual work being done on the stage, for instance, it's a particular pleasure. Samuel Shepherd Drive is parallel to and one block north of Washington Avenue, and the theater is a block west of Compton. The parking lot across the street is for the theater.
Indulge. Just don't bring along your prissy Uncle Ronald.
New Line Theatre
through October 24
3310 Samuel Shepherd Drive
Found: A weekend excursion for Eaters. Well, maybe not even an excursion, depending on where you live. There's an excellent and relatively large Mexican market in Bridgeton, on St. Charles Rock Road, right across from the Lowe's. And on Saturday and Sunday, they serve tacos. Pretty remarkable tacos, in fact.
Let's talk about the tacos first. After all, it's common knowledge that one shouldn't grocery-shop on an empty stomach.
Entering the doors of El Morelia, on the right side is where one orders and pays for their food. Several screens near the ceiling have the menu in both Spanish and English, although the English is a little more abbreviated. The system is modern enough that there's no carrying a ticket across to the other side of the room where they're assembling your tacos, the order arrives electronically.
On that other side, there's a lot to look at. A steam table contains many of the taco components. A vertical spit revolving like a gyro, cooking the pork al pastor. A ripe pineapple sits atop the skewer, whose primary contents are slices of pork seasoned and impaled in a stack. Their juices drip down over two large onions that provide a base for the pork - the onions, I suspect, are the cooks' treats at the end of their shift. And there's a large table covered with do-it-yourself taco toppings. Pico de gallo, chopped white onion, chopped cilantro, lime quarters, radish slices, pickled vegetables and two large basins of salsa, red and green.
Many people get theirs to go. Eating them Ted Drewes-style, using the hood of your car as a table (and perhaps getting a beer from your cooler) this time of the year isn't an impossibility. But there's seating, albeit limited, as you go a couple of steps farther, into the market itself. Several tables and a counter with stools - and a few more bowls of those salsas - are available.
These are generously served tacos, four of them on their individual squares of paper almost falling over the edges of the plate on which eat-ins arrive. By the time toppings are added, it becomes a challenge. Persevere. It's worth it. Just get plenty of napkins, especially for your lap if you're at the counter.
Carne asada tasted very beefy, the real test of this dish. Nicely tender, it dribbled juices and went best with the red salsa. That al pastor, the orange-colored strips, really didn't call for any seasoning beyond a sprinkle of cilantro, a squirt of lime and a bit of the onion, notes of cumin and annato swaying around the pork. The pineapple wasn't really noticeable, but in my experience almost never is; I suspect it was originally included to let the enzymes in the pineapple tenderize the free-range hogs of old.
The third taco, also pork (there's a chicken option available, but I didn't notice any vegetarian choices), was carnitas, succulent pork, tender and sweet and rich. The green salsa was best here, along with some of the pico de gallo. Along with the pork were two strips of pork skin, braised for seemingly several days. There was a time in my life when I wouldn't have touched this. But I knew from experience that this could be meltingly tender - and it was - and even a small bite would fill my mouth with piggy taste - and it did. Be brave. Eat something new.
That same advice might also apply to the taco of tripa, or tripe. I've eaten tripa tacos at several places recently, and it's becoming increasingly clear to me that whatever the kitchens are doing to the rumen, it involves long, slow cooking and the results are quite different from what one finds in menudo. The bits of tripe are almost creamy in texture and the characteristic flavor, for some an acquired taste like truffles or cilantro, is nearly obliterated. This, too, is a very rich filling, and the sharpness of lime and pico de gallor and/or onion is a good contrast.
On into the grocery store, the produce department begins things. Things are generally well-labeled, and many of the prices, for things like avocados, are less than what the big chains are asking. In the back, a bakery works - at least on the weekend, and the aroma drifts around. The meat counter has things labeled in Spanish, giving the English-only shopper a reminder that chuletas are pork chops, for instance. The smell of frying reminds everyone that the chicharrones are fresh, and sometimes set out with a big of salsa for sampling. Plenty of groceries, a row of santo candles, and some beverages, plus lots of candy. Everyone I ran into speaks English varying from okay to very good. It's an easy place to investigate, and to like.
12005 St. Charles Rock Road, Bridgeton
Tacos on Saturday and Sunday only.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good