A colleague asked me to describe El Borracho, the four-month-old, self-styled "taqueria y cantina" at the intersection of Locust and North 20th streets. Off the top of my head, I said, "It's like they watched From Dusk Till Dawn while drunk and then decided to open a Mexican joint."
From Dusk Till Dawn defies simple, logical description. The 1996 movie stars George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (who also wrote the screenplay) as brothers on the lam after a robbery gone horribly wrong. They hijack a vacationing family and force them to drive to Mexico, where the brothers plan to meet a contact at a strip club. Said strip club makes the typical Metro East joint look like the animatronic Adam and Eve at a Christian theme park. Salma Hayek does a sexy dance. Suddenly, the strippers become vampires, and the brothers and their hijack victims have to work together to slay the undead.
I'm not making this up.
From Dusk Till Dawn is memorable for three things:
1) Cheech Marin's filthy monologue advertising the strip club's, um, wares.
2) The ingenious moment when our heroes load a Super Soaker squirt gun with holy water to combat the stripper-vampires.
3) Harvey Keitel as the father of the hijacked family, after being bitten by a vampire, uttering the line: "I won't be Jacob any more. I'll be a lapdog of Satan."
I suppose, as an intellectual exercise, you could think of a worse movie to inspire your restaurant. (Make a game of it. I'll go first. Sophie's Lion's Choice.) At any rate, even though I did spot at least one From Dusk Till Dawn still among the many photos on El Borracho's walls, I didn't really believe that the movie had influenced the restaurant. I was reacting more to its garish décor: a slick nightclub look — all-black bathrooms! — festooned with Day of the Dead calacas and lucha libre masks.
But then, reading the "About" page of El Borracho's website (www.elborrachostl.com), I came across this: "El Borracho's 2100 square-foot space evokes a 'Tarantino-meets-Tijuana' vibe..."
Had I planned another visit, I'd have brought garlic and a crucifix.
El Borracho's nightclub roots run deeper than a From Dusk Till Dawn homage. Partners Pete Ferretti and Buddy Coy operate Mandarin Lounge and El Borracho's neighbor, Pepper Lounge; what's more, El Borracho itself used to be their nightclub Nectar. At El Borracho, Ferretti and Coy are joined by restaurateurs Pat Shannon and Gary VanMatre Jr. of Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood, and executive chef John Griffiths, whose résumé includes a stint running Larry Forgione's kitchen at An American Place.
To sum up, then: El Borracho is a nightclub turned Tarantino-inspired Mexican joint with a menu devised by a chef who worked in one of the city's best kitchens. Oh, and servers wear T-shirts asking if you are a "Mexi-Can" or a "Mexi-Can't."
What could possibly go wrong?
The layout of the place is more nightclub than restaurant: In the center of the single dining room is a large, oval-shaped bar. There are tables in front of and on either side of the bar, and more tables on a mezzanine behind it. Lights are low, tunes loud, flat-screen TV sets plentiful. Service on my visits varied from the efficient but brusque style of a popular bar to the confused, forgetful approach of a new restaurant.
The menu divides its tacos into two categories: "pancho" and "gringo" style. "Pancho" is the traditional taqueria taco: corn tortillas with your choice of fish or meat — chicken, beef, beef tongue, carnitas (pork fried in its own fat) and barbacoa (barbecue beef) — topped with chopped onion and cilantro, with a lime wedge on the side. "Gringo" brings your choice of meat in a flour tortilla and topped with lettuce, cheese, red onion, tomato and sour cream.
Does ordering the latter make you a Mexi-Can't? Should "gringo" style have been Old El Paso-brand hard-shell tortillas? Or was that just my family?
I opted for pancho-style tacos, one with carnitas, the other with barbacoa. My wife ordered two fish tacos, also pancho-style. The carnitas were bland, the fried fish bland and greasy, the barbacoa neither bland nor greasy but swimming in a funky sauce that obscured the meat's character.
El Borracho's pork tamale failed to convey the flavor of the filling or the masa. A burrito with carne asada? As bland as the refried beans inside. The queso blanco dip tasted like cheese-flavored water with a hint of canned chicken stock; not even a spoonful of chorizo could supply a much-needed kick.
El Borracho was at its best with side dishes, like roasted corn on the cob sprinkled with brown sugar and chile powder and smeared with sour cream and queso fresco. The frijoles borracho, pinto beans in a thick broth with serrano chiles, bacon, onion and Negra Modelo beer, were spicy, savory and delicious.
Credit El Borracho for including beef tongue among the taco-filling selections. If the restaurant cannot separate the Mexi-Cans from the Mexi-Can'ts, perhaps it can provide a gateway to the area's twin hotbeds of true Mexican cuisine, Cherokee Street and north county. Just about any of those taquerias offer the best introduction to Mexican cuisine in St. Louis.
But downtown deserves better. As I've said before, St. Louis needs a restaurateur who's willing to take Mexican food to the next level — to go beyond basic taqueria fare and explore the extraordinary heritage and rich diversity of the nation's cuisine.
While we're at it, what's with the name? "El Borracho" translates as "The Drunk." The menu sidesteps the derogatory connotation by turning the label into a pun, describing the food as "drunk with flavor."
If only that comparison applied: Nothing I ordered was remotely drunk with flavor. Not even the margaritas.
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