Craving a sublime taqueria experience? Go to Mi Tierra in Fairmont City. ¡Órale!

Slideshow: See photos from Mi Terra in Fairmont City

May 30, 2013 at 4:00 am
Hungry for all this? Head east!
Hungry for all this? Head east! Jennifer Silverberg

Drive east across the Poplar Street Bridge. (Fear not. Your car won't melt.) Stay on Interstate 55 when it splits from I-64. Endure the construction traffic. Take the exit for Collinsville Road toward Fairmont City. Just past a gentle curve in the road, you will see a very small brick building on the left with a few cars and heavy-duty pickups in the parking lot beside it. This is Mi Tierra Tienda y Taqueria.

This is your stop.

Yes, it is indeed a restaurant. Turn right at the entrance, head past the cash register and the racks of tejano CDs, hang a left and follow your nose to the back of the shop, stopping only to admire the single massive chicharrón displayed in the butcher case like a crumpled sheet of parchment. Here, through a doorway, is the taqueria itself: a kitchen smaller than a walk-in closet and seats for two dozen or so. At the peak of the lunch rush, you might have to linger in the doorway until someone vacates a booth. The wait is worth it.

Your server, who more likely than not is also your cook, brings you tortilla chips and small bowls of a smoky, fiendishly hot salsa and a spicy guacamole electric with lime juice. "Do you need a menu?" he asks, which is not as ridiculous a question as it might seem. In fact, it is a good sign. This place has regulars, and they know what they want.

Off to a rough start this morning? Order a big bowl of pungent menudo as red as comic-book blood. In a welcome concession to the truth about hangovers, menudo is available not only on the weekend, as required by taqueria tradition, but every day. Starving? The torta milanesa is the way to go. The kitchen packs the sandwich with steak pounded as thin as paper, dredged in breadcrumbs and then quickly fried crisp. The crunch of each bite yields to meat that's a touch chewy, yet still somehow juicy and flavorful. A generous spread of mayonnaise and thick slices of avocado make for messy but necessary condiments.

Or maybe you want tacos?

I want tacos.

Here is the truth about tacos. True tacos, I mean. Too much meat spooned into two warm corn tortillas that can barely support the weight, topped with chopped onion and cilantro. Tacos are awesome not because they are hip or trendy, nor because they possess some vaguely condescending street-food mystique. They are simply, brilliantly, the most efficient delivery service for delicious meat that any human being has devised. Four or five bites of maximum flavor and then you move on to the next one.

Slideshow: See photos from Mi Terra in Fairmont City

Mi Tierra offers the standard range of taqueria meats, from gringo-friendly carne asada and pollo to lengua and tripe. Even a basic chicken taco here is a joy to behold, the shredded meat moist and rich with rendered fat. The step from there to a taco filled with beef tongue isn't so far. The texture and flavor resemble braised short ribs made extra-luscious by little molten pockets of fat.

Or maybe you want pork? (OK, I might be projecting here.) The tacos al pastor lack the bits of pineapple that you might have come to expect from other taquerias' versions, but the sharply seasoned meat more than compensates for the absent fruit. Mi Tierra's carnitas, shredded for the tacos in the manner of pulled pork yet still retaining that one-two punch of crisped exterior and fat-enriched meat, are an unadulterated porcine pleasure.

My favorite taco filling at Mi Tierra is the barbacoa, which is even more tender than the lengua (or, if you like, the braised beef that lengua resembles) and as juicy as a medium-rare burger, the meat's strong natural flavor further spiked with an earthy chile bite.

Not in the mood for tacos? You can order one of Mi Tierra's meats as the filling for a burrito, the stuffing for a gordita or the topping for sopes. Can't shake that Tex-Mex jones? A sign above the kitchen counter informs you, "Tenemos chimichangas."

Mi Tierra calls itself a taqueria, though the menu stretches beyond those limitations, promising even more pleasures to be discovered. I must return — I will return — for the chicken mole, the beef soup with chayote. It is why, long after tacos are no longer my professional beat, I will happily waste a day driving around St. Louis and the surrounding towns searching for something, anything, I've never heard about.

Traffic permitting, you can reach Mi Tierra from downtown St. Louis in ten minutes. From pretty much anywhere in central St. Louis County you can reach the taquerias near the airport in about the same time. If you live in the city and don't already know about the restaurants along Cherokee Street, I envy you the thrill of new discovery.

All you have to do is go.

Slideshow: See photos from Mi Terra in Fairmont City