Dog Days 

In the mood for something a bit out of the ordinary in West County? Taqueria Chihuahua offers authentic Mexican fare in generous and inexpensive servings.

The food stall or diner-like Mexican restaurant called a taqueria is relatively rare in these parts. The main concentration recently has been along the Cherokee Street strip in South St. Louis, and a quite enjoyable version existed a few years ago in one of the inside booths of the U. City Market in the Loop, but it never quite reached critical mass.

Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions, "Mexican" food in the suburbs has been dominated by the chains, with any semblance of ethnic identity often reduced to mass-produced stereotypes lining the walls and dangling from the ceilings. Some of the decorations at the Taqueria Chihuahua originated right here in St. Louis at the brewery on our own beloved Pestalozzi Street.

A good indicator of Mexican authenticity isn't what's on the walls, though; it's in the language spoken within: The phone at Chihuahua is answered first in Spanish, the hostess greets everyone in Spanish, and the majority of the diners order and converse in Mexico's native tongue.

And speaking of tongue, it's one of the unusual ingredients available for the tacos, along with tripe (also offered as menudo on the weekend, when special dishes like pozole and a seafood cocktail called vuelve a la vida, or "back to life," are also featured). But even if you're not up for quite that exotic of a meal, there's plenty else to choose from, and you can eat substantially for less than 10 bucks a head.

Taqueria Chihuahua is located almost invisibly in a small storefront on the south side of Manchester Road between Baxter and Clarkson roads, in one of the seemingly endless strings of strip malls that dot that particular landscape. The restaurant itself is easy to miss, but the adjacent Mexican grocery and store, Lara Market, has bigger signage; if you're still confused, look for the landmark of the center, the West County branch of Rizzo's. Inside, Chihuahua is brightly lit with pink and yellow walls, and in addition to the Mexican-slanted beer ads and various ethnic decorations, several clown dolls add a mildly surreal atmosphere by parachuting from the ceiling.

It's pretty obviously a family operation, because a cute-as-a-cufflink little girl probably still below her teens brought us chips and salsa and took our drink orders, dutifully retrieving a grownup when I opted for a beer. The salsa, very smooth in texture and a reddish-beige color almost like Thousand Island dressing, was our first clue that this would be an interesting meal. It provided the still-warm chips with an unexpected but satisfying condiment --richly tomatoey owing to significant use of roasted tomatoes, teasingly spicy without being too fiery.

The basic tacos came double-wrapped in a slightly oily corn tortilla, and we sampled the barbacoa version, a very moist shredded beef, liberally flavored with diced onion and chopped cilantro. Soft, flour-tortilla-wrapped burritos were nothing short of enormous, very close to a foot long, and even the simple frijoles y queso (beans and cheese) filling made for more than enough for a moderate appetite. A bit more uncommon were the sopes, ashtray-sized containers of corn dough that reminded me of English muffins, in our case filled with pork and again sprinkled with chopped onion and spices.

Among the full-meal dishes (especialidades Mexicanas), the mole Chihuahua-style was a moderate amount of diced chicken breast totally immersed in an aromatic, reddish-brown thickened sauce, with huge servings of beans and rice on the side. The mole was simmered just long enough that all hints of bitterness resolved into a smooth, roasty taste, and it drove us to absorb every last drop, after the chicken was gone, with the rice. Beef-steak tampiqueño was claimed as an 8-ounce rib eye, but if it was, it was a deconstructed one, reduced into thin slices. Nonetheless, it actually seemed to work better this way, more easily mixed up with the accompanying chorizo and fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions.

A short list of seafood was also available, but the aforementioned "back to life" cocktail of shrimp, octopus and oysters had been relegated to weekends-only status by the time we visited. The camarone al mojo de ajo really did have a powerful garlic mojo, with a good dozen-and-a-half medium shrimp, shelled to the tail, served in a potent but mellow garlic butter. Like many of the dishes we tried, it was padded with shredded lettuce, tomato and sour cream, but in fact it probably would have been more than adequate in portion size without the extras, especially given that the on-table condiments included one container full of pickled cauliflower and vegetables and another of pickled green chiles.

The only sweet with our meals was a refreshing, tropically fruity fresh guava shake, basically a malted milk with almost an entire guava chopped up in it.

Taqueria Chihuahua only has space for seven tables and at most 30 seats, and this number was reduced even further on one of our visits as the blast-furnace weather had caused the air conditioning to overcondensate wildly and, in effect. thunderstorm onto the middle of the room. Service was enthusiastic, although it was more of the "bring it out as soon as it's ready" rather than the "bring out meals for everyone at the table at the same time" variety -- and you get the added benefit, if seated just right, of peering through the window in the dining room right into the kitchen to watch the progress of your order.

And you've got to hand it to the staff for sheer endurance, because the place is open 13 to 17 hours a day, every day of the week. (It would be an interesting exercise to hang out at Taqueria Chihuahua in the early-morning hours, but we never quite got up the energy to try that.)

Chihuahua has made it onto our short list for quick and inexpensive meals in West County, especially when we're in the mood for something just a little bit out of the ordinary. If the talking Chihuahua really knew his stuff, he'd be shilling for the taco place that's named after him.

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