Ian's got the skinny on the new Flaco's

Feb 6, 2008 at 4:00 am

I'm supposed to mention that Flaco's Cocina, which opened late last year in the Soviet Bloc-style strip mall and office complex at the intersection of Delmar Boulevard and I-170, is an homage to the late, lamented Flaco's Tacos. This, I've learned after bugging a few longtime St. Louisans, was the restaurant that introduced the area to the fish taco. Which is a wonderfully obscure claim to fame. I'd like to think that somewhere in San Diego are the shuttered remnants of the beloved mom-and-pop Italian restaurant responsible for introducing the toasted ravioli to Southern California.

Anyway, Flaco's Tacos came and went before my time in St. Louis, and the fish taco has no special place in my heart, so I walked into Flaco's Cocina a blank slate, just happy to see some color in an otherwise drab slab of mixed-use whatever.

If you have been jonesing for Flaco's tacos, know that Flaco's Cocina is just an homage, not a sequel. The owner is Maziar Nooran, a co-owner of nearby Greek meze restaurant Momos; the chef is Jeffrey Winer. And, yes, there are fish tacos on the menu.

The space itself is very small, with maybe a dozen tables surrounding a central bar. The walls feature bright, vaguely Southwestern colors; the bar has a lot of metal. Of course there is a flat-screen TV set, awkwardly positioned above a table along the front wall. There is, inexplicably, an upside-down trumpet among the décor's various knickknacks. As a whole, the place is how you would imagine a 24-hour diner in El Paso if you had never been to El Paso. I kind of dig it.

The service is friendly, though uneven. On each of my visits, there was one server, who doubled as bartender. On one visit, the server-bartender happened to be the chef. (Don't worry: There was at least one line cook in the kitchen. He bussed tables, too.) This leads to longer-than-you-might-like waits to order and receive drinks and meals.

The complimentary house-made tortilla chips come with your choice of five salsas. Or so claims the menu. I wasn't offered a choice on any of my visits and usually ended up with what appeared to be the house salsa, which was medium-bodied with very mild heat. On one occasion I did receive what seemed to be the fire-roasted tomato and jalapeño salsa; this had a nice smoky flavor and a definite, though not overwhelming, heat. You might also pair the obligatory chips with an order of guacamole. It's the standard mash of avocado, diced tomato and onion with a spritz of lime juice, but it has a fine chunky texture, and the flavors are appealingly bright.

Now, about those fish tacos. Flaco's Cocina of-fers four different styles: blackened tilapia, grilled mahi mahi, chipotle barbecue salmon and "tempura baja." I tried the last two. You receive two to an order. Each is served with tart cabbage slaw inside a soft flour tortilla; on the side are pico de gallo, sour cream and ensalada de masa, a mild corn relish.

The tempura tacos were excellent. Inside each are two or three pieces of tender, mild fish in a light, crisp batter that matches well with the crunchy slaw. I could take or leave the slightly spicy sauce atop the slaw — it reminded me of both the chipotle mayo that turns up on chain menus these days and Thousand Island dressing — but it didn't detract from the taco's overall flavor.

I wasn't as enamored of the salmon tacos. The salmon itself was OK (served very roughly chopped, it vaguely resembles pulled pork), but the barbecue sauce was thin and overly sweet. Really, it tasted less like a too-sweet barbecue sauce than a too-sweet sweet-and-sour sauce. It didn't work with the salmon at all.

Tacos are also available with meat (grilled chicken, carne asada or carnitas) and roasted vegetables. I tried the carnitas tacos, which were so fat with meat and cabbage that the tortillas could barely hold them. (Here I missed the sensible taqueria practice of serving your taco fillings atop two tortillas.) The carnitas were good, with that definite edge of flavor from being browned in fat after, in this case, being braised.

Though the memory of tacos past might draw you to Flaco's, I was more impressed by some of the other offerings. The enchiladas, for example, are served with a restrained amount of cheese and — even better — in a rich, complex sauce that combines smoky, peppery heat with mild sweetness. It was much better than the tomato-pasty sauce that tops enchiladas at far too many Mexican and Tex-Mex joints. I had the enchiladas with carne asada, and the grilled steak was tender and flavorful.

The kitchen offers three ceviche preparations: scallops, shrimp and a fish of the day. I'd hoped to try the shrimp, but the kitchen was out of coconut milk. I opted for the fish of the day, ono, a Hawaiian fish also known as wahoo. When cooked, it looks something like mahi mahi, but the flavor isn't nearly as meaty. At any rate, the ono was "cooked" in lime juice and served with chopped apple and mango. The fruit was the key to this dish, mellowing out the ono's puckering lime flavor.

Dinner entrées add a little flair to the standard Mex/Tex-Mex roster. For example, "carne asada" medallions feature beef tenderloin rather than the cheaper cut usually employed, while empanadas are stuffed with lobster, shrimp and scallops. The chorizo kebab — two chorizo sausages and a couple of hunks of chicken grilled on skewers — is gussied up with a delicious saffron barbecue sauce. The meat is served atop mashed sweet potatoes and, buried under the potatoes, wilted spinach. I'm not sure the spinach was necessary (it seemed like the kitchen was trying too hard to make a complete "dish"), and the grilled chicken was bland, but I liked the contrast in flavors and textures between the barbecue sauce, the sweet potatoes and the sharp, spicy chorizo.

Chiles rellenos brought a fat roasted poblano — spicier than you might anticipate — topped with cheese and stuffed with cilantro-spiked rice, vegetables and grilled chicken. (You can swap out the chicken for tofu, a thoughtful touch on the kitchen's part that's all too rare at this kind of place.) This is served in a pool of sauce that is either the same one that accompanied the enchiladas or something very similar. (Both are described on the menu as the restaurant's homemade mole.)

There is a wine list, but Flaco's Cocina is the kind of place where you want to order a Mexican lager or a margarita. It just has that vibe. I hesitate to call it a restaurant, even. It's a joint, mildly ambitious, mostly fun. Would the original Flaco be proud? I have no clue. But he wouldn't leave hungry.