Taqueria la Monarca is the latest addition to the unlikely Murderers' Row of restaurants at the intersection of Olive Boulevard and Woodson Road. Across Woodson from the three-month-old taqueria is Jeffrey Plaza, home to Nobu's, De Palm Tree, Indian Food and Pho Long — each among the top examples of their representative cuisines. Taqueria la Monarca fits neatly into this lineup, the No. 2 hitter lining singles to the outfield gaps, setting the table for the heavy hitters.
In fact, Monarca is relocated and greatly expanded from a storefront on the other side of Olive, Tienda la Monarca. A modest selection of groceries is to the right as you enter the new location. The taqueria is to your left: a single room, unadorned and windowless, less like a restaurant than the basement meeting room of a small church.
Here you will find not only taqueria staples — tacos, tortas, quesadillas — but also fajitas, enchiladas and tamales. My fellow taqueria aficionados might recognize the menu from Overland's Taqueria la Pasadita ("Tortilla Fats," June 11, 2008). Indeed, the owners of the two restaurants are related, though their preparations vary. For example, Monarca's tamales rely on heat less than Pasadita's. Though the pork is seasoned with a salsa verde, its natural flavor, combined with the mild sweetness of masa, is what carries the dish here.
Tacos are heaped with meat: funky tongue, hot and tangy chorizo, sweet and spicy pork al pastor. The obligatory two corn tortillas are barely enough to support them. Looking for a change of pace from the standard taqueria taco? Sopes might be the ticket, a small, thin disc of fried masa topped with a spread of refried beans, cilantro, onion, cheese and your choice of meat, dotted with crema.
The tortas are excellent, with an ideal balance of meat — steak milanesa, pounded thin and then breaded and fried, in my case — and toppings (tomato, onion, avocado, jalapeño and carrot). Crucially, though there was mayo on the crusty bolillo, it wasn't gloppy with the condiment, as can often happen.
I encountered only two disappointments at modest, friendly Monarca. The guacamole, though made to order, lacked flavor. And while the Coca-Cola I ordered on my first visit was the Mexican version, made with cane sugar and served in a slim, elegant glass bottle, on subsequent trips it was high-fructose corn syrup American Coke in an oversize plastic bottle.
Twice during the past few weeks, strangers have remarked to me on my love for pork tacos. Well, what's not to love? Point taken, however: I review taquerias more often than the average restaurant critic. It's not just the pork tacos. I love the thrill of trying something new, and when it comes to Mexican cuisine in St. Louis, you're far more likely to find that at a taqueria than at your run-of-the-mill Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant.
Which isn't to say those restaurants lack charm. Amigo Joe's comes to us from the same folks behind Chimichanga's on South Grand Boulevard. Like that restaurant, Amigo Joe's sports a festive atmosphere — rainbow lights are draped throughout the large, multiroom space — and a lengthy menu featuring few variations on the familiar dishes the area's many other Mexican restaurants offer. As best I can recall, it's the only restaurant where I've seen an "Emergency Exit Only" sign on a patio gate.
On my first visit, I had chori pollo, thin slices of chicken breast topped with melted cheese and chorizo. This presses all of the gringo-friendly buttons: The brightly flavored chorizo is salty and spicy; the cheese is gooey; the chicken is...um...ballast.
On another occasion I tried carnitas, one of my favorite foods on this or any other planet. Generally speaking, carnitas is pork roasted or braised and then briefly pan-fried in its own rendered fat. It's pretty much foolproof deliciousness, and while the carnitas at Amigo Joe's might not have boasted the most complex flavor I've encountered, I still scarfed down most of it.
Those seeking volume for their dollars will be pleased to know that Amigo Joe's offers many mix-and-match combos (one burrito, one enchilada and so on). Lunch specials are priced exceptionally low.
There is ample seating. The smoking and non-smoking sections are separated by an area that serves as both entryway and bar. Sitting in a non-smoking room, I didn't notice crossover smoke. There is also the aforementioned patio. Remember: Use the gate only in case of an emergency. In all other instances, just stand on your chair and jump over the fence.
Being married to a Texan has led me, after a lifelong reluctance, to embrace the glories of good brisket, and I can report that the brisket at three-month-old Latitude 26 in Dogtown is quite tender and richly flavored. Its presence on Latitude 26's menu — on its own or as the meat inside your taco or enchilada — is a welcome change from the grilled flavor and chewier texture of carne asada.
Latitude 26's name is a reference to where Texas and Mexico literally meet, but St. Louisans will appreciate a local geographical reference: The restaurant occupies the address vacated last year by Chuy Arzola's (which has reopened in the Coronado building). The renovation is thorough and has turned a cramped, dingy space into an airy one, thanks in large part to the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Owners Tony and Kelli Almond, who also operate Almond's in Clayton, have put together a concise menu that offers few surprises aside from the brisket. Tacos are served in a hard corn or soft flour tortilla and topped with shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato. The available meats are brisket, ground beef and chicken. The brisket was fine, but the chicken tasted unseasoned — and I don't mean spices; I mean any seasoning whatsoever, including salt.
The same shortcoming bedeviled the meat that filled the pork tamales, but the masa was soft and sweet, and the tamales were topped with a tart, mildly spicy tomatillo salsa and a few slices of pickled jalapeño. The chicken inside an order of enchiladas had enough flavor to stand up to the cheese and "gravy" atop it. This gravy struck me as no more or less interesting as the red ranchero sauce that tops enchiladas at most area restaurants.
But like Chuy Arzola's before it, Latitude 26 isn't meant for those seeking to expand their palates. It's a comfort-food restaurant, a place for beers and chips and guac with friends. After all, it can't always be tacos al pastor.
Or can it? Hmmm....