Hot or Not?

El Scorcho promises a chile reception.

El Scorcho

7356 Manchester Rd, Maplewood; 314-644-5566.

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.

Chips and salsa...$3
Chicken wings...$6
Beef brisket plate...$8.50

A young woman a few bar seats away from me had a question for the bartender. "What does El Scorcho mean?"

His response was immediate and deadpan. "It means 'The Scorcho.'"

I wanted to hug them both. My work was done. Their five-second exchange reveals all you need to know about El Scorcho, a three-month-old barbecue shack, Tex-Mex joint and tequileria.

El Scorcho is all about itself.

The place seems unassuming enough from the outside, a small, dark storefront wedged between a hair salon and a Mexican market along Maplewood's business strip. Look at the sign above the entrance, though, and you'll get an idea what awaits you inside. There stands El Scorcho himself, a beer-bellied burro dressed in sombrero, chaps and boots, a bottle of beer in one hand, a burrito in the other, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth; instead of six-shooters, his holsters hold red and green chiles.

You enter into a narrow, cramped room. The light has an eerie red cast that suggests last call at the end of the world. There's table seating for 30, with room for just over a dozen more at the bar. It doesn't take much of a crowd to pack the space and slow down both the kitchen and the friendly servers, but if you don't mind that, the lively atmosphere is appealing, especially after a margarita or three. (Though I'd recommend a Catalina, made with tequila and fresh lemon and lime juices, instead. The house margaritas — which, if you order a pitcher, come in a cool bong-like contraption with a tap at the base — taste of prefab sour mix.)

The décor is straight-up Tex-Mex kitsch: cowboy hats on the wall, Mexican prayer candles on the bar, a few stools in the shape of saddles. A portrait of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns hangs crookedly on the wall just inside the front door; the juxtaposition of this image with the mounted jackalope head above the front door is downright surreal. The kitsch extends to the menu. Some items feature sophomoric Spanglish names ("Pulled Porko," "Maco & Cheeso"), others cheeky annotations (scrawled next to baked beans is a certain rhyme we all learned in elementary school).

Owners Mark Lucas and Mike Johnson previously teamed up on the nearby swings-at-the-bar restaurant Boogaloo, and Johnson has been the driving force behind BARcelona, Roxane and several other area restaurants; last year the RFT named him Best Local Chef. Considering all this experience and savvy, you'd be forgiven for thinking El Scorcho's kitsch a joke on places that embrace Tex-Mex clichés without irony but don't deliver the goods from the kitchen.

El Scorcho's kitsch might be ironic. But sadly, more often than not, its kitchen doesn't deliver.

You might start your meal with chips and salsa for $3. The chips aren't very good — if not stale (and I doubt they were, since they were like this on multiple visits), then with a stale-like texture. There are four different salsas. The hottest, "El Scorchoed," delivered heat but was watery. The next-hottest, "Scorchoed," was excellent. There are several dips besides salsa. The three-cheese blend was a guilty pleasure, properly thick and tangy. The guacamole was bizarre, with a salty flavor an awful lot like cheap gravy.

The Tex-Mex menu — or "El Scorcho's Too Sexy Mexi Texi Especials" — lassoes the usual suspects: burritos, fajitas, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, enchiladas, tostadas. You can order these with steak, chicken, grilled or fried fish, vegetables or one of the barbecue meats (more about them in a moment).

A burrito with steak was as big as a Chipotle or Qdoba monster. It contained a decent amount of steak but not much flavor besides steak. Underseasoned rice and beans made up most of its bulk, and the other components — cheese, pico de gallo and guacamole — were too sparse to take up the slack. (In the case of the guacamole, that was a positive.)

On another visit my order of fajitas arrived as stealthily as a submarine. This was both a disappointment and a harbinger. The best thing about fajitas is that moment you hear the sizzle of your approaching plate. The steak (as well as a couple of pieces of chicken that had found their way onto the plate) didn't have much flavor, there weren't many peppers and onions, and the whole shebang — wrapped up in a tortilla with shredded cheese and pico de gallo (but not guacamole) — was utterly bland until I added a healthy dollop of the "Scorchoed" salsa.

The barbecue menu features beef brisket, pulled pork, turkey breast, ribs and chicken; each is served with your choice of bread and two sides. I liked the brisket well enough. The meat itself wasn't especially tender — not surprising, given brisket's character, though the menu makes a big deal of its being slow-cooked — but the dusky sauce had depth: a little smoky, a little tangy.

On the other hand, the sauce on the barbecue chicken was much too sweet, though the portion (half of a chicken for $6.95) was quite generous. And the sauce on the pulled pork was downright terrible, much, much too heavy on the vingear, with a slight mustard flavor that was less like an undertone than a cry for help. Worst of all, I could barely taste the pork.

Of the many sides, my favorites were the thick, beer-battered onion rings and the very creamy "Maco & Cheeso." Grilled corn on a stick was a delight once I added butter — though there was no stick to be seen. The green beans were served with a sinful amount of chopped bacon. The "Scorcho" beans were really just boring black beans, and the French fries, though crisp and hot, had almost no flavor.

I should also mention El Scorcho's chicken wings, which are quite plump and very tasty. I tried the wings in a sauce of honey with chile and garlic, and while there wasn't enough heat or bite to overcome the sweetness, a few shakes of hot sauce solved the problem.

I wish the other dishes could be improved so easily. But even if the burrito or the fajitas or the pulled "porko" were better executed, I'd still wonder: What's the point? El Scorcho might have been interesting twenty years ago, when for many Americans Tex-Mex and Mexican were synonymous terms that meant Taco Bell and Old El Paso. Today we know much more about food and are eager to keep learning. Given how adept Mike Johnson has proven himself at making lesser-known or newly trendy cuisines accessible to St. Louis, El Scorcho is a disappointment: a hip bar with cheap grub and a "theme" that seems custom-made for Branson.

That chubby donkey will look great on a T-shirt.

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