Devils in the Details: Diablitos Cantina aims to stand out in a very crowded culinary field
Jennifer Silverberg
Putting the kitsch in kitchen: Punched-tin star lights dangle above the dining room.

On the very first page of its menu, Diablitos Cantina aims to set itself apart from the crowd of local Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. "We believe in offering our guests the freshest food made with the highest quality ingredients," reads a note that precedes the section headed "Bocaditos" (snacks), "therefore, complimentary chips and salsa are not available."

Instead, for $2 per person, you and your tablemates can munch housemade chips till the cows come home and reload at the restaurant's salsa bar whenever the mood strikes.

Now, I can think of several reactions one might have upon learning that he or she is about to chow down at a restaurant that charges for chips and salsa. One might applaud a chef for taking a principled stand. One might shrug, having thought nothing of trading cash for chips countless times at Chipotle, that paragon of ethical fast-casual chain dining (no bottomless supply, either). One might get up and leave in a huff.

La Grange Salad is romaine lettuce, mangoes, pico de gallo and roasted corn with an avocado ranch dressing and tortilla strips.
Jennifer Silverberg
La Grange Salad is romaine lettuce, mangoes, pico de gallo and roasted corn with an avocado ranch dressing and tortilla strips.

Location Info

Map

Diablitos Cantina

3761 Laclede Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Details

Diablitos Cantina
Tacos al pastor...$9
Enchiladas suizas...$9
"The Austin"...$10
3761 Laclede Avenue; 314-644-4430.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. (Bar open till 1:30 a.m. daily.)

Let me suggest that the most appropriate response is wary relief. If Diablitos Cantina is charging you $2 for these chips and salsas, then you definitely don't want the chips and salsa they'd have given you for free.

Diablitos opened just before Christmas, the latest venture from Ami Grimes and Gurpreet Prada, whose In Good Company firm also operates Café Ventana, Sanctuaria and the craft brewery Cathedral Square. Diablitos is located just off Laclede Avenue amid a cluster of Saint Louis University dorms; in fact, SLU owns the building. Step through the door, though, and you're not on campus anymore. The décor is to kitsch what Soviet socialist realism is to propaganda, which is to say an appalling apotheosis. Dozens of large, punched-tin "star" light fixtures cluster above the front half of the large dining room ­— so many that you might wonder if you've wandered into a lighting showroom that specializes in large, punched-tin "star" fixtures. Catholic iconography abounds, including an entire wall covered with reclaimed church doors of varying shapes and sizes. There is a mirror ball of sorts, fashioned from a trio of Day of the Dead-style skulls, stacked one atop the other, and spinning.

Of course, kitsch tends to recede from view if you're distracted by good food.

If there's one cuisine that's malleable enough to be molded into virtually any dining concept, from the most elegant white-tablecloth palace to the ramshacklest roadside dive — and every conceivable permutation in between — Mexican is that cuisine. And then there's Diablitos, the improbable exception that proves the rule, starting with that two-buck chips-and-salsa-stravaganza. The chips are OK, thin and crisp and very lightly salted (though where you see "very lightly salted," go ahead and substitute "unsalted," unless you're endowed with one of those hair-trigger palates that can detect salinity in the parts-per-trillion range). The salsa bar, which seemed promising in theory, was a major letdown. A pair of fruit-based renditions tasted far less intriguing than their bright colors advertised: The watermelon salsa tasted like watermelon; the mango salsa like mango. The salsa verde was an ordinary purée of tangy tomatillo, and the pico de gallo was what you'd expect, but nothing more. The "very hot" salsa was. But it tasted like it could strip paint. And the house salsa tasted like ketchup. (To me, anyway; a friend begged to differ, contending, "Ketchup would be a little spicy. This tastes like tomato sauce.")

If you want to enjoy your chips, order the guacamole. You don't get much for your $5, but what you do get is a well-calibrated blend of distinct flavors: avocado, a hint of tomato and red onion, a spritz of lime.

Much of the menu takes its inspiration from Mexican street food. (There's also onion rings, fries and chicken wings, which perhaps we can credit to NAFTA.) An order of tacos al pastor certainly looked the part; nice-size hunks of braised pork topped with a pineapple salsa, wrapped in Diablitos' flour tortillas, which are made in-house and have a pleasantly light chew. But the plate was done in by an utter lack of seasoning. A grilled-steak torta didn't make it beyond the eye test, either; a few bites in, it became clear that something was missing: the steak. This was a $10 refried-bean sandwich with a handful of tiny pieces of chopped meat hidden within. The torta came with fries, crisp, perfectly salted and almost certainly the best thing to emerge from Diablitos' kitchen and make its way to my table.

Some offerings have the chef venturing into Tex-Mex territory. "Jumbo Shrimp Fajitas" dispensed with the sizzling-platter presentation; you get a half-dozen decidedly not-jumbo shrimp, a few slices of onion and green pepper. The three flour tortillas supplied on the side prove to be more than sufficient to accommodate this undersized portion; I ran out of fixings after about a tortilla and a half. (Shrimp, incidentally, is the only meat on the menu that's described as "farm-raised.")

The masa in the sweet-corn tamales is moist and flavorful, but that subtle success — so seldom achieved in Mexican kitchens north of the border — is sunk by a too-rich cheese sauce and, once again, underseasoned pork. The drizzle of smoky chipotle chile sauce over the tamales had just the right kick: Put that on the unlimited salsa bar, and I'd go back for seconds.

I got a fleeting impression that the adobo-spiced chicken that filled the enchiladas suizas was brightly flavored, but the salsa verde and crema that topped — make that engulfed — the fluted tortillas quickly smothered that sensation. "The Austin" — adobo chicken (or for a few dollars more, pork or steak) stuffed inside a flour tortilla, which is then flash-fried — was a similar casualty, swamped by a viscous avalanche of cheese sauce and guacamole.

Service ranged from brusque to inept. On one visit a modest crowd had servers frantically waving across the room to customers waiting to be seated, a gesture that either meant, "I'll seat you as soon as I can," or "Help!" Several patrons got so thirsty awaiting drink refills that they brought their empty glasses to the bar. On another visit the bar was so backed up that it took fifteen minutes to fill a request for a beer and a simple cocktail. Said cocktail, made of tequila, simple syrup and lemon-lime soda and dubbed "Pablo's Paloma," tasted pretty good, as did the house margarita. The beer list includes the expected Mexican brews, selections from Cathedral Square and A-B's Natural Light.

I can think of several reactions one might have upon sighting Natty Light at a stateside cantina. One might cock a cynical eyebrow and chalk it up to the Walmart-ization of American culture. One might sigh ruefully and order a Corona, unaware that both brews are owned by the same company.

Me? I prefer to view it as a positive sign. It demonstrates that at some level, Diablitos is attuned to its target demographic. We are, after all, on a college campus.

There's a lot more to a well-conceived restaurant, of course, than one low-end beer. And if Diablitos is ever to rise above the densely populated chips-and-salsa scrum, the kitchen still has a ways to go. Why would we need a street-vendor-themed restaurant when we have actual street vendors, not to mention trucks and taquerias?

And for those who seek the simple pleasure of chips and salsa, there are plenty of places where the chips are in abundance, the salsa's decent, and both are free.

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12 comments
Craptastic
Craptastic

Yeah. Same experience here. The place sucks pretty bad. I really wanted to like it, but all 8 of us had a lousy experience and spent way too much money for what we got. I had the same reaction to the $10 meatless steak torta. For $5 on Cherokee street you can get real character and a hearty sandwich. They must have super low food costs at this place.

Yojimbo
Yojimbo

"Dozens of large, punched-tin 'star' light fixtures cluster above the front half of the large dining room ­— so many that you might wonder if you've wandered into a lighting showroom that specializes in large, punched-tin 'star' fixtures."

Not kitsch. Questionable taste, perhaps. But not kitsch.

"... an entire wall covered with reclaimed church doors of varying shapes and sizes."

Not kitsch. Aesthetically tired, perhaps. But not kitsch.

Smug only works when it's earned. Ian the Terrible needs to go back to school.

Pschank
Pschank

It's not scathing when it's in the same town as Milagro...

Jason
Jason

As a fan of Sancturia I was prepared to like Diablitos. But I was sorely disappointed on several visits for the reasons Ian lists. I love salsas and love salsa bars. Here, they were all dull and more or less the same except the hot one, which was not that hot but at least had some spark. The food was lackluster and the service had a sense of people dropped into a disaster without any training. I have worked in restuarants for years and have a great deal of sympathy for the difficulities of running one, but our experiences went beyond the pale. Finally one just has to read Ian's work on a regular basis to know it is usually pretty middle of the road. When it is glowing (like it was 2 weeks ago for Cleveland-Heath) then get there as soon as you can. And when it is scathing stay away and don't give into the devil.

Mike N.
Mike N.

It's been a few years since I've been a starving college student, but I could definately see going with a couple friends and ordering a $2 'bottomless' chips-n-salsa and glasses of water and spending a few hours. Sure, it'd be douchey, but no douchier than that disclaimer on the menu.

anonymous
anonymous

Their margaritas are great -- tart and not sickly sweet. Also, I appreciate the salsa bar, and the beer garden will be awesome this summer. That said, the service is awful, through no fault of the servers. Organization is seriously lacking.

Thomas
Thomas

I think Ian's review is spot-on. I found their food to be seriously lacking in flavor.

Shea266
Shea266

It is a rather harsh review of a restaurant that had its grand opening on Jan 20th. Kinks and all it is a really nice place that is working hard and doing a lot of things totally right! I dont think this is fair but decide for yourself and go check it out..

Blarue95
Blarue95

Do you always writing such scathing reviews Your words are nasty and hateful Your clueless and should stick to writing about things you actually know about How sad the RFT thought it would be wise to let such a fool write Very dissappointing! We find Diablitos food delicious and well prepared You Should get offyour high horse

IanFroeb
IanFroeb

You're right. I do need to go back to school. Here's some of what I read.

First up, we have U of Chicago's Whitney Rugg on kitsch:

"Clement Greenberg emphasized that the 'pre-condition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully formed cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends.' Kitsch does not analyze culture but repackages and stylizes it. Kitsch reinforces established conventions, appealing to mass tastes and gratifying communal experiences."

I also checked out Denis Dutton writing on kitsch in the Dictionary of Art (* - emphasis mine):

"Kitsch includes what advertising blurbs might call 'original hand-painted reproductions of fine works of art,' *mass-produced tourist curios in imitation of honest folk styles*, most cinematic versions of famous composers’ lives, much patriotic art, the funerary sculpture of California’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, and *all manner of religious reproductions and souvenirs*."

I'd argue that, taken collectively, rather than broken out into individual (and thus more easily dismissed) components, the decor here presents a fraudulent "Mexico" meant to evoke in diners the sort of "Aw, shucks, isn't Mexico great!" reactions to lead to another round of margaritas being ordered. It might not be the example of kitsch that a Milan Kundera (I done read him in school, too!) reaches for, but it works for me.

whoa nelly
whoa nelly

And you should a) learn how to spell; b) learn proper grammar and punctuation; c) relax and understand it is one man's opinion; and, d) get off your high horse...

 
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