Tacos de Kirkwood: Amigos Cantina brings the suburbs a little taste of Cherokee Street

Amigos Cantina Amigos Cantina

120 West Jefferson Avenue, Kirkwood; 314-821-0877.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (Bar open till 10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., till 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.)

Amigos Cantina
Stuffed poblano...$9.50
Steak fajitas...$12.95
"Mexican Mojo Shrimp"...$14.95

An array of multicolored shingles frames the entrance to Amigos Cantina, which opened this past spring in downtown Kirkwood. It's an attractive, eye-catching display, and you might enter this new Mexican restaurant hoping for a new approach to a cuisine that is much broader and more complex than its relatively uniform local treatment would suggest.

The interior is more sedate, with low light and plain tables and booths. In general, the décor is a restrained version of the generic Mexican-restaurant template, "Mexican" without tipping into kitsch. There is a single dining room, though partitions give the impression of several different spaces. At the back of the restaurant, behind one such partition, is the bar. (Thankfully, given its proximity to the dining room, this is nonsmoking.)

When crowded, the restaurant can be very loud — and I note this as someone who has developed a fairly high tolerance for restaurant noise. There are a few tables on the small patio in front of the restaurant. At lunch these were occupied by diners, but at dinner they were reserved for bar patrons.

The menu is modest. While it does offer quesadillas, burritos and tacos, there is no mix-and-match list of combination platters. Nor do you have to navigate what seems like two or three entrée menus — lengthy, separate lists of the meat dishes, the chicken dishes and, of course, the house specialties — packed into one.

Of course your meal begins with complimentary tortilla chips and salsa, which is thick and mildly spicy. The guacamole is straightforward, with a very gentle bite of lime juice. The cheese dip promises chorizo. I didn't notice much, but the queso itself (in fact, Monterey jack cheese) was very thick, a guilty, guilty pleasure.

Taqueria aficionados might note the selection of tortas, traditional Mexican sandwiches. The meat selection is rudimentary — steak, shredded beef, chicken and (in a concession to American vegetarians) portobello mushrooms — but the sandwiches are served on the customary thick, ovular bolillo (or telera) roll and feature the usual toppings: tomato, onion, avocado and sour cream. I had the torta with shredded beef, and while the meat was tender, there was hardly enough of it to stand up to all those toppings.

On my visits the soup of the day was guajillo chicken. The guajillo chile added mild heat and a slight fruity flavor to what was a relatively basic broth, more vegetable- than chicken-flavored.

If the tortas nudge a taqueria staple toward American tastes, the burritos, tacos and quesadillas nod toward more authentic territory. Tacos, for instance, are served as you find them at a Cherokee Street taqueria: the meat folded within two soft corn tortillas. The quesadilla I tried was no glorified grilled-cheese sandwich; instead the cheese provided an accent to tender, mildly sweet slow-roasted pork.

There are a dozen or so entrées, labeled "Amigos Specialties"; these include Mexican fare as well as that Tex-Mex staple, fajitas. "Roberto's Steak Fajitas" (Roberto being chef Roberto Trevino) offer thinly sliced beef, red peppers and onions served not on a sizzling platter, but as one-third of a standard dinner plate with sides of rice and pinto beans. The absence of the dramatic puff of smoke and sinister sizzling as the server whisked it to the table notwithstanding, these were fine fajitas. Thanks to a lime-garlic marinade, the meat was tender and flavorful even though it was seared past a medium-well temperature.

"Mexican Mojo Shrimp" offered succulent shrimp in a sauce that balanced the smoky heat of chipotle peppers with the sweetness of toasted garlic. Cilantro and a squirt of lime juice gave the dish a bright top note. Especially welcome during a busy dinner service: The shrimp were cooked perfectly.

Most intriguing of the specialties was a riff on the classic chiles rellenos: two roasted poblano chiles stuffed with shredded chicken, walnuts and raisins and topped with what the menu describes as a "creamy goat cheese sauce." Here you have the elements for a complex dish: sweet, savory and nutty, the pepper's mild heat, the goat cheese's funk. I couldn't recall seeing anything similar at another restaurant, and I admired its inclusion on a menu too brief for the kitchen to hide an offbeat dish.

The poblanos were on the large side and plump with tender — though underseasoned — chicken. The raisins worked as tiny bursts of sweetness, but I didn't get much flavor from the walnuts. This was likely on account of the goat-cheese sauce: It had been poured, rather than drizzled, over the peppers, so that it swamped the rather delicate interplay of the stuffing's flavors. The sauce was bland, having sacrificed the distinctiveness of goat cheese for an overly thickened texture.

The cocktail menu highlights margaritas, naturally, but you might consider the vampiro, a refreshing mix of tequila and the grapefruit soda Squirt (a soft drink that's far more popular in Mexico than in the United States). A few wines are available, but you should probably take a cue from the attention the cocktail menu lavishes on the selection of Mexican beers. Each brew is given a thumbnail description, and while I could make a joke about telling cheap Mexican beers apart — how many ways can you find to say crisp and light? — the fact is, I love Sol but hate Corona. So there must be some difference, right?

Service was problematic. On several occasions it took a server longer than expected to realize my table had been assigned to him or her. One server actually described herself as "distracted" when belatedly taking our drink order. On the flip side, when a lunch order was noticeably delayed, the manager offered a complimentary drink from the bar and my server gave me a complimentary cup of cheese dip and reduced my bill by 30 percent.

With the exception of that one lunch, food arrived from the kitchen very quickly. At one dinner our cheese dip arrived maybe two minutes after we ordered it. We didn't mind — we were hungry, and you don't expect every order of queso to be made from scratch. But when our entrées arrived not ten minutes after we ordered them, we felt rushed.

I don't think the restaurant was hurrying us along. Quite the opposite: I suspect it didn't want to disappoint us. Most of us still consider Mexican a "simple" — that is: quick and easy — cuisine. Credit Amigos Cantina for taking steps to move beyond the stereotype. I, for one, can't wait until the Mexican restaurants in St. Louis are as varied as the colors of this restaurant's shingles.

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