Cheers to Chava's

A Mexican standby rises from the ashes of Mike & Min's

May 3, 2006 at 4:00 am
The last time I sat at a wrought-iron table outside the bar on the corner of Geyer and Tenth Street, I was there against my will. It was a Monday night. Earlier that evening, a friend had called and chided me — make that bullied me — into driving down to Soulard immediately, if not sooner. He had received some bad news earlier that day: His girlfriend was sleeping with her ex behind his back.

Never mind that this relationship had begun when my friend (let's call him "Drunky von Loadedstein") cheated on his then-current beau. Never mind also that Von Loaded was a notorious philanderer. Or that for many of us, Monday nights were reserved for yoga class, the latest episode of 24 or catching up on sleep missed over the weekend. We were to drink that night to help buoy his spirits, to drown his sorrows in our collective highballs. And we were to do it at Mike & Min's.

Ah, Mike & Min's, that bastion of questionable behavior and balls-out inebriation, that Taj Ma-hell of dives, that place which, quite frankly, I was always a bit wary to enter. If I did ever darken its door on any other night in my life (which I don't think I did), I was too bleary to remember the morning after. The place always looked respectable enough, from what I could see from the street. But whenever I heard someone mention a lost weekend that involved Mike & Min's, others within earshot would inevitably respond, "Oooh, you went there? Man, you had a fucked-up night!" Mike & Min's meant more than just getting blotto. It represented drinking with vengeance, stupidity or a Molotov-cocktail combination of both. In short, the ideal setting for Drunky's night of moon-howling and liver-pickling.

Mike & Min's closed late last year, ending an era that had begun in 1937 (albeit through a series of owners). Around Mardi Gras, a Mexican restaurant, Chava's, debuted in its place. And so it was that I found myself on a warm Tuesday night, seated at the Drunky von Loadedstein Memorial Two-Top. And once again I was wary: Only one other party occupied a sidewalk table, and there were maybe a half-dozen patrons inside. Soulard can be a sleepy nabe, at least before the witching hour rolls around, but still, here is its only Mexican restaurant. That fact alone should draw an appreciative dinner crowd. Mexican food is quick and good, priced to suit blue-collar wallets and fantastic at laying a foundation for a night's drinking — all qualities that jibe nicely with a historic district whose name means "drunkard" in French.

Maybe I was looking for a nod to the legacy of Mike & Min's, but I was chagrined to see that Chava's offered no drink menu. The closest thing to a house-specialty drink appeared to be the lime margarita, premixed with Cuervo Gold and pulled from a tap. When prompted, my server also listed a hodgepodge of margarita options: rocks or frozen, salt or no salt, sissified flavors (piña colada, etc.). I went with a traditional margarita with Patrón (Drunky's shot of choice). Sadly, no top-shelf tequila could temper the saccharine, chemical flavor of the sour mix used to make this drink.

I was surprised, then, to learn that Chava's does offer terrific drinks made from real fruit, juiced in-house. And when whipped up with genuine nectars (pineapple, mango, orange), the restaurant's margaritas are a treat. A pineapple margarita, thick with real fruit purée, was difficult to suck through a straw but well worth the effort. The ripe, lush flavors of a mango-strawberry marg, prepared in a blender with fresh mango slices and strawberry syrup, hit the palate with a lively ka-pow!

The complimentary chips and salsa proved to be another fine way to pass the time until the food arrived. Though deceivingly stored atop the bar in one of those movie-counter nacho incubators, the white cornmeal chips are anything but store-bought and stale. So thin they're translucent, these crisp wedges bore the slightest trace of salt and a barely detectable sweetness. The salsa, based on a liquidy tomato purée, recalled a homemade Italian tomato sauce: spicy but not fiery, vividly red, riddled with chopped scallions, tomato seeds, cilantro and the pungency of sweated raw onions.

Chava's' menu is brief and to the point: seven appetizers, three kinds of tacos, a fajita platter, plus a burrito, a "big fresh" salad, an enchilada and a tostada (the last four offered with various à la carte meat add-ons). A fajita steak quesadilla grabbed my attention from the get-go. Big-boy fists of sirloin steak nestled between gooey layers of Cheddar and Monterey and a pair of flour tortillas, puffing up the quesadilla like an overstuffed mattress. The steak was well charred on the outside but juicy and flavorful; the cheese took its proper back seat to the meat. Fajita nachos, assembled with grilled chicken breast meat and topped with refried beans, were just as good, abetted by a nice pico de gallo. The refried beans were a textural treat, with whole pintos lurking within the mound of mashed and larded ones.

The potential for fajita greatness suggested by the appetizers was fully realized in Chava's' fajita platter. What a pretty plate: long, glistening slices of steak mingling with fat slices of white onion and green, red and yellow bell peppers; a golf ball-size scoop of guacamole studded with red tomato; a small handful of freshly grated cheese, plus more of those refried beans garnished with little pieces of bacon. Eaten separately, by the forkful, or wrapped up in a warmed flour tortilla, each and every component was a standout.

If I were to suggest a house specialty for Chava's to boast about, it would be the tacos de Guadalajara, a pair of flash-fried flour tortillas clamped around a filling of seasoned ground beef, lettuce, tomato, white onion and a clever blend of grated Monterey and Parmesan cheeses. When fried just right, the shells are pliant yet firm, with a hint of sweetness and the airy crispness of mille-feuille — a big step up from the shatter-prone Old El Paso corn shells most of us grew up knowing. But should the tacos come out overdone, as they did on a subsequent visit, all merit is burned right out of them.

At times my dining experiences at Chava's mirrored Drunky's dark night of the soul at Mike & Min's, which see-sawed from intoxicated hilarity to melancholy self-immolation. For every transcendent margarita there was a premixed atrocity; for every exemplary fajita, a trainwreck like the thirteen-inch burrito: glazed over with an off-putting film of melted Cheddar and Monterey Jack, with a leathery flour-based casing. Inside were refried beans and char-grilled sirloin — ostensibly the same beans and sirloin that did the fajita proud. But something happened to these pieces of steak. Something that sucked out their life and spirit, and, therefore, mine.

Chava's' "big fresh" salad proved another unhappy encounter. Chopped romaine and iceberg, ever-so-slightly brown around the edges, tomatoes, onions, wilty jalapeños, shredded Cheddar and "jalapeño bacon" (which I saw no sign of), trapped beneath a heap of bland ground beef was certainly big, but not fresh. The salad's only redeeming quality was the ranch dressing served on the side. Ranch dressing? ¡Muy mexicano!

Drunky's bender at Mike & Min's ended with him tearing off down the street to upend garbage cans and flower pots. My night at Chava's ended on a decidedly more upbeat note. I had a small bill to pay and a leftover steak fajita to take home — not to mention the reassurance that a Soulard landmark had given way to a promising new enterprise. Unlike Mike & Min's, I'd readily return to Chava's.

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