It won't surprise regular readers of this column to learn that if I were stranded on a desert island, I'd want the only restaurant there to be a taqueria. I'd set up shelter within walking distance of both the surf and the food and grow fat and happy on tacos al pastor, tortas the size of my head and Mexican Coca-Cola — the real Real Thing, made with sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup — in dewy glass bottles.
If you were stranded on a desert island, how could you pay for all that taqueria food?
This is why I never share my desert-island fantasies. There's always a smart-ass in the room. At any rate I love taquerias, and for a city not exactly world-renowned for its Mexican restaurants, St. Louis has enough taquerias to keep me fat and happy, if not desert-island tan.
What I especially love about the taquerias in St. Louis — besides the food — is that they are the few restaurants in which an adventurous diner, even one with more than a passing acquaintance with Mexican cuisine, can encounter something he or she has never seen before.
It might be as simple as an unfamiliar cut of beef, like suadero. I've had it twice now, at La Vallesana on Cherokee Street and at Taqueria los Tarascos near the airport, and I'm still not sure which part of the cow I was eating. Somewhere around the flank, above the udder, I think.
Or it might be an entire dish, like the enchiladas michoacanas at Taqueria el Jalapeño. Now, enchiladas are standard fare at even the most gringofied Mexican restaurants: corn tortillas plump with meat or beans or cheese, smothered with red sauce of some kind or another and even more cheese, and baked. Enchiladas michoacanas — which is to say enchiladas the way they make them in the Mexican state of Michoacán — look nothing like this, though you'd likely use "smothered" to describe them, too.
These enchiladas are corn tortillas sprinkled with chopped onions and a tangy, crumbled cheese. (A worker described this as queso de Monterrey; he couldn't have meant Monterey Jack.) The tortillas are folded into wedges and fried on a flattop. The wedges are topped with a fiery sauce of red chiles and then, yes, smothered with more of the same cheese, along with sour cream, lettuce and chopped carrots, potatoes and jalapeño. The potato and carrot provide ballast for the one-two punch of the sauce and the jalapeños, the lettuce and sour cream a cooling antidote.
Remarkably, for all these toppings, you can still taste the tortillas' light masa flavor — they even retain a little of their fried-crisp texture. All of this is served with your choice of steak or chicken breast on the side. I opted for steak. A thin cut, much like flank steak, this was chewy, fatty and, frankly, delicious.
Taqueria el Jalapeño opened six months ago along St. Charles Rock Road in St. Ann. It joins other north-county spots — the aforementioned Taqueria los Tarascos, as well as Taqueria la Pasadita and Las Palmas — in challenging Cherokee Street's status as the St. Louis spot for Mexican cuisine.
Make sure to write down the address, because Taqueria el Jalapeño is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it storefront at the north end of a tiny strip mall. Look for the smiling, mustachioed jalapeño wearing a sombrero. The interior is cramped, with seating for maybe a dozen in front of the galley kitchen: prep area on one side, range and flattop grill on the other. With the sizzle of meat on the flattop filling the space, the brief wait between ordering and eating is excruciating.
Huaraches are another dish you rarely encounter in St. Louis. These are named after the traditional, car- tire-soled Mexican sandal. The etymology is clear: Masa dough is flattened into a thick oval roughly the size and shape of a huarache sole. (Imagine an oblong pancake.) Fried crisp, huaraches — the food, not the shoe — serve as a sort of flatbread to be topped any number of ways.
At Taqueria el Jalapeño, the standard huarache is topped with your choice of meat (carne asada, beef tongue, tripe, chicken, chorizo, barbacoa or pork al pastor), refried beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, crisscrossing drizzles of sour cream and cheese. Wanting a baseline meat by which to judge the huarache itself, I went with carne asada. The meat and beans comprised the bulk of the dish, but the huarache was the highlight. Under the crisp exterior, the masa dough possessed the lighter body of cornbread with a similar, slightly sweet flavor.
You can also order the huarache mexicano, which is topped with steak, two fried eggs and jalapeños. This would be the breakfast course at my desert-island taqueria.
Of course, Taqueria el Jalapeño offers all the taqueria staples: tacos, tortas, burritos and quesadillas. The menu is slightly more expansive than some, with gorditas, tostadas and sopas as well as alambres. This last one was another dish that was new to me: a plate containing eight overlapping corn tortillas topped with meat (I ordered pork al pastor), pico de gallo, melted queso fresco and a pile of grilled onions. Not as exotic as its name might suggest, but tasty, and yet another example of the seemingly infinite variations possible from the simple combination of meat and tortillas.
That is true even within the subcategory of tacos. These are served at El Jalapeño with the aforementioned choice of meats — the same selection that, give or take a few, is available at most area taquerias. Yet here, too, there were differences. Barbacoa refers, traditionally, to meat barbecued in a pit. I'm not sure any St. Louis restaurant could do this, permit-wise, even if it wanted to. Here, it is described as braised, yet its texture seemed closer to grilled, and it was tossed in a light red sauce much like the achiote-seasoned marinade used to make pork al pastor. All in all, the barbacoa was like a spicier carne asada.
The tacos al pastor nicely balanced a mildly spicy seasoning with the meat's porky essence — though I did miss the chunks of pineapple that accompany these tacos at La Vallesana. On weekends, you can order tacos de cabeza. This, in the broadest sense, is meat from the roasted head of a cow. I've read descriptions of cabeza meat including everything from eyes to lips, but most of the meat in Taqueria el Jalapeño's tacos de cabeza was cheek meat, richly flavored, if a tad fatty.
I couldn't help but wonder how different another taqueria's tacos de cabeza would be. This is the true flaw in my desert-island fantasy. I'd need two or three taquerias, not just one, so that I could compare — and increase my chances of discovering yet another new thing about which I know nothing except that it's delicious.