I couldn't put my finger on it.
Of course, as an English major, I can't see a reference to the Day of the Dead without thinking of the poor consul in Under the Volcano. The consul stumbles around the town of Quauhnahuac, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead in a mezcal haze, running into townspeople celebrating the holiday and a disturbing number of stray dogs while he ponders the return of his estranged wife and his half-brother, who happen to have been lovers once. That, as my professors liked to say, is some heavy shit.
It might have been that.
Or it might have been the two luchador masks gazing down on my table from the opposite wall, silently damning me for having paid to see Nacho Libre. In my defense, I forked over the matinee price.
Or it might have been a nagging fear that I was inviting some bad karma, ordering the "Day of the Dead" platter without any intention of celebrating my own dearly departed. Food is a major part of many families' Day of the Dead festivities, both as a meal and as ofrendas, or offerings, to the dead.
There was more than enough food on my platter to share with any ghosts who happened to be lingering around: a tamale with chicken and chorizo, a beef taco, albóndigas (meatballs), Mexican-style rice and refried beans. It's quite a feast. Honestly, when it arrived, I felt more relieved than anything else. I could stop worrying about the implications of the name and just dig in.
But my discomfort with Jasoom Mexican Revolutionary Restaurant & Cantina never totally faded. The platters named, with a wink and a nod, after key dates in Mexican history. The masks on the wall. The grinning skeleton on the mantel. (Known as a calavera, it's another traditional decoration from the Day of the Dead). I got the sense that Mexican culture was being celebrated the way Applebee's celebrates local high school sports teams.
Co-owners Chris Fletcher (who cooks) and Jeff Lund opened the restaurant last year as, simply, Jasoom. The menu featured comfort food meat loaf, deep-fried pickles and a few Mexican standards. In November, seeking to fill a gap in the gallery of ethnic restaurants on South Grand and also to offer more affordable selections Fletcher and Lund switched to mostly Mexican. (According to the menu, the "Revolution" in Jasoom's newly expanded name refers to this decision.)
I might dismiss this decision as the basest sort of restaurant-biz cynicism, except for one thing. The food's pretty good sometimes excellent, always satisfying.
It's difficult for chips and salsa to stand out. But Jasoom's do. Both are house-made. The chips were so perfectly salted I was tempted to snack on them alone. They were also substantial enough to support the very thick salsa, which was more spicy than sweet, its heat perfectly calibrated to drain your first beer or margarita before your entrée arrives.
On my first visit, I also tried the chips with guacamole and a (decidedly un-Mexican) beer-cheese sauce. The guacamole was fresh and chunky but lacked zip; it could have used a healthy squirt of lime juice. The beer-cheese sauce, on the other hand, couldn't have been improved. It had a rich mustard flavor, like Welsh rarebit without the bite of Worcestershire sauce.
But back to that salsa, which was very spicy. A delayed heat. We were halfway through our chips and dips when it hit me. It was so hot I considered switching from Modelo Especial (one of four Mexican beers available by the bottle) to one of Jasoom's "Supreme Cocktails." The "Jasoom Margarita" was heavy on the sour mix two demerits, as far as I'm concerned: one for not enough tequila, one for using sour mix in the first place but the sangria was very refreshing. The red wine had enough character to stand up to the blend of fruit juices and enough body to avoid being watered down by the ice cubes.
On my second visit, I started with queso fundido and empanadas. The queso fundido at Mirasol is one of my favorite dishes in St. Louis, but Jasoom's version was disappointing. The blend of melted cheeses wasn't any more complex than what you find on your movie-theater nachos, and the mixed-in bits of chorizo were dry and flavorless. The empanadas (which aren't unknown in Mexican cuisine by any means, but which are usually associated with South America, especially Argentina) had flaky, buttery shells you should be able to order them, unfilled, as a dessert but the fillings lacked depth. The ground beef in the meat empanada tasted strongly of generic chili powder, and the cheese-cabbage mixture in the "Veggie" empanada was about as exciting as spinach dip.
Jasoom's main courses were also hit or miss, often both on the same plate. Its questionable name notwithstanding, the "Day of the Dead" platter was very good. The albóndigas, especially, were fantastic. The meatballs are traditionally made by mixing ground beef or pork (sometimes both) with rice, onion, garlic and various other seasonings. The menu didn't specify which meats Fletcher uses; from the mild, sweet flavor I'd guess pork, though there were a couple of bites where I could have sworn I tasted veal. At any rate, these were seriously good albóndigas. A simple soft taco filled with braised beef was nearly as good. The third element of the combo, a tamale with chicken and chorizo, was a dud. The meat was dry, and the masa imparted only the slightest cornmeal flavor.
A lack of distinctive flavor also bedeviled two of the entrées (as opposed to combination platters) I tried. Chicken flautas required a serious infusion of the guacamole and sour cream garnishes, as well as a forkful of the delicious refried beans, to be the least bit interesting, while chilaquiles a casserole made from softened tortilla chips, cheese and beef tasted exactly as it appeared: a plate of soggy nachos. (Chilaquiles are also available with beans and fried egg instead of beef, one of several vegetarian dishes on the menu. In fact, Jasoom has the most vegetarian-friendly Mexican menu I've seen.)
Too much flavor was the only problem with the "May 5" platter I tried on another visit. This featured chicken enchiladas and pork chile verde roasted pork and pickled cactus topped with a tomatillo-based sauce. The cactus (almost certainly nopal, or prickly pear) was an authentically Mexican touch. Both were quite good at first, but one of them (I never could figure out which) had been overseasoned with cumin, whose domineering flavor gradually obliterated everything else.
I'll count the pork chile verde as a winner, though. It really was excellent until the cumin kicked in. And it was similar to the best thing by far I ate at Jasoom, the red chile beef. This featured braised beef and pickled cactus (again) in a chipotle-based ranchero sauce. Braising made the beef fall-apart tender and brought out a subtle note of sweetness to complement the smoky and spicy (but not overwhelmingly so) sauce. Without doubt, it's the most distinctive item on the menu, the one dish where I felt Fletcher wasn't merely imitating Mexican cuisine (granted, it's a fine imitation), but adding his own notes.
In fact, I wish Jasoom would risk another revolution (besides ditching the kitschy Mexican décor) and augment its crowd-pleasing Mexican selections with more dishes as intriguing as that red chile beef. Still, even at its most conventional, Jasoom is satisfying. Revolution or not, this is comfort food.
Even if I feel a little uncomfortable while I'm eating it.