To the catalogue of essential sandwiches we must now add the pambazo. This is essentially the classic Mexican torta — meat, vegetables and condiments between the two halves of a large, soft roll — though pambazo bread traditionally isn't as soft as a torta's bolillo, and before you assemble a pambazo, you soak the bread in a guajillo-chile sauce, giving it a distinctive red hue and a mild kick. Unlike a torta ahogada, which is "drowned" in chile sauce, the pambazo isn't a knife-and-fork sandwich, the bread having soaked up much of the sauce. You'll need napkins, sure, but you won't ruin your clothes.
As far as I know, the only restaurant in St. Louis to serve a pambazo is two-month-old Siete Luminarias. Here the pambazo comes with your choice of meat (steak, chicken, chorizo or pork skin), pinto beans, chopped potato and carrot, lettuce and crema. The ratio of meat (grilled steak in my case) to vegetable is just right — it's a big sandwich, but not overwhelming— and the guajillo-chile sauce gives the meat and earthy vegetables a pleasant bite.
Brothers Ramón and Luis García opened Siete Luminarias in January, along the stretch of Cherokee Street west of Jefferson Avenue that over the past decade has become the go-to spot for traditional Mexican cuisine, especially taqueria fare, in St. Louis. (For those who are keeping score at home, Siete Luminarias takes over the space from which the taqueria La Vallesana sold ice cream and popsicles; La Vallesana has consolidated its operations in its completely rebuilt main restaurant just down the block.) The restaurant is one long dining room that ends at the open kitchen. The décor is spare but colorful. A flat-screen just inside the entrance plays a Mexican music channel; another at the back of the dining room shows fútbol on ESPN Deportes.
Your meal begins with a nod to gringo expectations — complimentary chips and salsa. These are served in a little plastic model of a donkey pulling a cart: The chips sit in the cart; red and green salsas in the packs the donkey carries on either side. The salsa verde has a lovely, wicked kick. The housemade chips are light and crisp and perfectly salted. If Siete Luminarias charged for 'em, I'd pay.
The broad menu ranges from taqueria and street fare to dishes that even the most casual fan of Mexican cuisine knows well (enchiladas, chiles rellenos) to dishes that aficionados have yet to cross off their checklist. The pambazo belongs to this last category, as does the tlacoyo. This is a small, flat football-shaped masa cake that is stuffed with melted cheese and then topped with the meat or vegetable of your choosing (same as the pambazo, plus poblano chiles or nopales), chopped lettuce, pico de gallo and crema. The toppings are tasty (I had mine with spicy chorizo), but the tlacoyo is the star, lightly sweet and very moist, yielding to stringy, tangy cheese.
The tlacoyo and their unstuffed counterpart, huaraches, are the best bet if you have a masa craving. The tamales were the only disappointment I encountered at Siete Luminarias — not bad, but not up to the standard set by everything else. The masa was fine, but the fillings (an order gets you a trio: one with pork, one with chicken and one with poblano chiles) didn't have much punch.
No matter. The carnitas here are among the best I've ever had: pork shoulder rendered to lusciousness in its own fat and juices, then given a quick pan-roasting, which crisps the exterior and turns it caramel-sweet. A dollop of guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapeños and a couple of the restaurant's housemade tortillas (corn or flour, both are excellent) complete the plate. Served on the side of this entrée and most others are simple dishes of pinto beans and seasoned rice. The menu describes the carnitas as "Guanajuato-style," a reference to the García family's home state in central Mexico. The restaurant's name is another homage: El país de las siete luminarias (The Land of the Seven Lamps) refers to the area that surrounds the town of Valle de Santiago, which features a cluster of volcanic craters.
Though it's not a taqueria, per se, Siete Luminarias knows its way around a taco. Fillings range from basic grilled chicken or carne asada to carnitas, pork al pastor, beef tongue (lengua), beef head (cabeza) and tripe. As is typical, each comes topped with chopped onion and cilantro. Unlike at most taquerias, the corn tortillas here are sturdy enough that double wrapping is unnecessary.
As far as I'm concerned, the cabeza was the standout: The meat is exceptionally tender, almost velvety, and full of rich, pure beefy flavor. The al pastor meat had a soft texture as well, indicating that it was neither grilled nor spit-roasted; that might have been a disappointment, had the meat not been seasoned to perfection, hitting precisely the right, sharp note. Another standout, the lamb barbacoa, was similarly elevated, this time by a smoky chile sauce that nicely contrasted with the meat's distinctive flavor.
It's gratifying when a restaurant of any stripe hits the culinary version of the exacta: first-rate food served by a welcoming and knowledgeable staff (in this case, the García brothers themselves, along with their extended family). That's a proven combination, and it's bound to win Siete Luminarias many fans, even on the crowded Cherokee corridor. What's going to bring me back for more, though, is the Garcías' willingness to push the envelope (if only incrementally) beyond gringo-friendly Mexican staples. That says a lot about a restaurant — and a lot about how deeply Mexican cuisine has rooted itself in St. Louis food culture.