Review: Sabroso Is a St. Louis Chef's Love Song to Mexican Cuisine

Jun 9, 2022 at 9:08 am

click to enlarge Sabroso brings a taste of Mexico City and Tabasco to St. Ann. - Mabel Suen
Mabel Suen
Sabroso brings a taste of Mexico City and Tabasco to St. Ann.

The first inkling that Sabroso Cocina Mexicana (1146 Old Saint Charles Road, St. Ann; 314-918-5037) is anything but a standard Tex-Mex restaurant comes courtesy of the queso fundido. Rather than having the characteristic unctuous, Velveeta-like texture with a negligible amount of chorizo folded in its liquid form, Sabroso's queso fundido is a sizzling, fajita-like marvel. Instead of a dip, this version is a thin, molten hunk of mild white cheese that's flecked with green chiles, red peppers, chorizo and corn and served on a sizzling platter. The skillet is so hot that the cheese caramelized on the bottom, giving it a delectable nutty flavor; by the time it's placed on the table, the concoction hardens on its underside to the point that it can be sliced and rolled into one of the accompanying warm flour tortillas. Once you experience such magic, you wonder why it's served any other way.

That sentiment permeates the entire experience at Sabroso, which opened in October in an oddly cavernous strip mall across the street from Northwest Plaza in St. Ann. Once a movie theater, the plaza now houses a church, a daycare and a handful of other businesses; Sabroso is tucked into the corner — unassuming digs for such bold flavors that come to life thanks to talented chef and owner Miguel Pintor and his wife, Brandin Maddock.

Though Pintor's name might not immediately ring a bell, countless St. Louis diners have benefited from his expert touch during his many years as the culinary director of Mission Taco Joint, where he was fondly referred to as "Chef Miguel." There, Pintor worked alongside chef and co-owner Jason Tilford — a relationship that dates back to when Tilford was the executive chef at Crazy Fish a couple of decades ago — to help build the restaurant's brand into one of the area's most popular spots.

click to enlarge Chef Miguel Pintor with his daughters Patience Maddock and Bella Fernandez - Mabel Suen
Mabel Suen
Chef Miguel Pintor with his daughters Patience Maddock and Bella Fernandez

However, Pintor's road to the restaurant business began well before he met Tilford and, in some ways, well before he arrived in the United States. Born in the Mexican state of Tabasco, Pintor moved to Mexico City when he was nine. There, his mother ran a taco stand, and another local chef took Pintor under her wings when he struggled with school. He started out running errands, but eventually earned her trust enough to learn different cooking techniques.

Though those experiences well prepared Pintor for work in professional kitchens, he did not see that as his path. Instead, he worked as a bus driver in Mexico City and traveled a great deal in his spare time. One of those journeys began in Chicago and was supposed to end in Texas. However, he made a stop to visit a cousin in St. Louis and ran out of money. Instead of giving him a loan, his cousin got him a job and told him to earn his own money. That gig, a line-cook position at Red Lobster, was Pintor's first foray into kitchen work, and he embraced it, picking up a second job not long after at Crazy Fish. From that moment forward, his fate was sealed.

Over the years, Pintor regularly talked about his desire to open a restaurant. Those plans accelerated about a year into the pandemic, when Pintor and Tilford parted ways after Mission Taco reorganized. Not quite ready to jump into owning a restaurant, Pintor worked as a private chef out of his home but became so busy that he and Maddock could not wait any longer. In the middle of 2021, they found a storefront in St. Ann, signed a lease and sketched out their vision for Sabroso.

click to enlarge The Pambazo torta is stuffed with potato, lettuce, tomatoes and queso fresco and served on marinated bread. - Mabel Suen
Mabel Suen
The Pambazo torta is stuffed with potato, lettuce, tomatoes and queso fresco and served on marinated bread.

Pintor envisioned Sabroso as a fiercely traditional Mexican restaurant, and he has mostly stayed true to that vision. Though he added a few Tex-Mex dishes to the menu since opening last October ("People kept asking for burritos and chimichangas," Pintor says), Sabroso remains a window into the food you would get if you visited Pintor's family in Mexico City and Tabasco. Perhaps the clearest example of this is his cochinita pibil, a stunning, slow-roasted pulled-pork dish that is so tender and juicy you could spread it on a cracker. The meat is deeply porky yet kissed with a hint of citrus to cut through the richness. Pintor dresses the meat with a generous sprinkle of diced, pickled red onions to add even more balance to the dish. You can order this atop a number of dishes, though the simple platter is the purest way to enjoy such porcine pleasure.

Sabroso's tamale is an absolute masterpiece. Here, the masa is almost creamy and so fresh you can close your eyes and imagine Pintor's mentor back in Mexico City hand-pressing it back in the kitchen. Stuffed with green chiles and cheese, it's as if a jalapeño popper got a PhD-level education in traditional Mexican cuisine.

Like the cochinita pibil, the birria is perfection. Akin to a Mexican pot roast, the birria can be served solo on a platter, stuffed into a torta or layered with cheese inside a griddled flour tortilla and served with a side of cilantro- and chili-enhanced consomme. This latter version, known as quesabirria, is like a glorious marriage with a quesadilla.

click to enlarge Sabroso serves a variety of street tacos, including those stuffed with the house specialty, cochinita pibil. - Mabel Suen
Mabel Suen
Sabroso serves a variety of street tacos, including those stuffed with the house specialty, cochinita pibil.

If the quesabirria is what happens when a quesadilla meets French dip, the machete is a mash-up of a quesadilla and a Philly cheesesteak. For this dish, Pintor takes a large tortilla and fills it with beautifully char-kissed carne asada, onions and cheese. The filling is then pressed onto the griddle so that it cooks up to a golden crisp. You might think this is the most wonderful example of meat stuffed into carbs, but Sabroso's tortas give the machete a run for its money. Pintor makes his own bread, which sits somewhere between a pillowy focaccia and the crispy baguette used in Vietnamese banh mi. You can get a variety of fillings for the tortas, though it's hard to pass up the opportunity to let that birria soak into every crevice of this delicious bread.

Sabroso offers several street tacos; the al pastor pairs pork with juicy pineapple, and the campechano is a delightful mix of carne asada and chorizo. However, the must-try is the carnitas; Pintor's take on the pork preparation is otherworldly, a masterful mix of crispy, caramelized edges and succulent fatty pieces reminiscent of porchetta. That something as simple as roasted pork and corn shells can be so transcendent is evidence of Pintor's undeniable talent.

When you first sit down at one of Sabroso's tables and attempt to order a margarita, you bristle upon hearing that the restaurant is booze free. St. Ann's ordinances prohibit the restaurant from obtaining a liquor license because of its proximity to both the church and daycare. It seems like an issue, but when you are noshing on those carnitas, using the taco to sop up the rendered fat and meaty bits that have fallen out onto the plate, it ceases to be an issue. Such an experience leaves you wanting for nothing.

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