Tortilla Fats: Ian falls hard for a taqueria — again

We were headed to dinner at a new Indian restaurant on Page Avenue. When we arrived, the restaurant was closed. Not closed for the evening — it was only 7:30 — but actually done-ski. I'd eaten lunch there just a few days earlier.

"Well," I said. "That sucks."

"You know where we're near?" my wife asked.

She named a Mexican restaurant on Woodson Road, an old favorite we hadn't visited since I'd taken this job. Back then I would pick her up from her office after she'd worked late on Friday and we'd drive to Woodson Terrace and ease into the weekend with a couple of cold Dos Equis (me) or margaritas (her) and awesome enchiladas verdes.

I couldn't remember the last time I'd driven Woodson between Page and St. Charles Rock Road. I didn't know of any restaurants along this stretch besides Woofie's, so I tried to catalog the strip malls we passed that evening. Liquor store. Sports bar, maybe with food. Taqueria.

"Wait. Did we just pass a taqueria?"

My wife hadn't noticed. I couldn't see it in the rearview mirror. It had looked like an old Taco Bell, but I was certain the sign in front had said it was a taqueria. (I've developed a sixth sense for tacos.) I considered turning around, but our hearts were set on enchiladas verdes.

When I returned a few days later, I discovered I was right on both counts. It used to be a Taco Bell. Now it is Taqueria la Pasadita. Aside from sepia-toned photos, a couple of TVs playing telenovelas or soccer matches and a shrine to the movie Scarface (really), the interior still resembles an old Taco Bell, with pink and blue trim on the tables. The seating, for about two dozen, is very cramped.

The menu features traditional taqueria fare (tacos, tortas, burritos), as well as a few dishes you might associate with a larger restaurant (enchilada and quesadilla platters with rice and refried beans, fajitas, fried fish). For the most part, I stuck to the taqueria dishes. (As I said, I have a sixth sense for tacos — and a weakness.)

I've written before about my passion for tacos al pastor. These feature pork, which is traditionally seasoned with achiote to give the meat a fiery red color and then grilled or roasted on a vertical spit, like gyro or doner kebab meat. As I understand it, spit-roasting is more authentic — in some places, tacos al pastor are known as tacos de trompo, the trompo referring to the spit — but far less common than grilling. However it's cooked, the pork is paired with chunks of pineapple and served in the Mexican style: inside two corn tortillas and garnished with chopped onion and cilantro.

For my money, La Vallesana on Cherokee Street makes the best in town (see "Cherokee Pastoral," July 12, 2007), but the tacos al pastor at Taqueria la Pasadita are very good. The pork is spicy. A dab of smoky red salsa from the squeeze bottle on my table was a punishing experience. The first time I ordered a taco al pastor, the pineapple was finely chopped, and the flavor couldn't compete with the pork. On another visit, the pineapple was chunky, its sweetness the perfect foil for the pork's heat.

Pork al pastor is one of several meats available for tacos. The simplest selections, ideal for the taqueria novice, are plain old steak (bistek) and chicken (pollo). The bistek is excellent, the meat flavorful and surprisingly tender, considering how finely chopped it is. The pollo, though, is boring, seasoned very little or not all. Crumbled chorizo sausage is sharply flavored and spicy, though not overwhelmingly so.

My favorite taco at Taqueria la Pasadita was served with chicharrón, fried pork skin. When cooked perfectly, as they were here, chicarrónes have a crisp exterior and a melting-tender interior. They are served in a tart salsa verde that contrasts nicely with the very fatty meat.

Those who crave the stranger bits will find both tongue and tripe available. Another meat worth mentioning is suadero. I wrote about my first encounter with suadero at La Vallesana in the inaugural edition of my Gut Check column (February 7, 2007). I didn't know what suadero was — I hadn't even heard of that particular cut of meat until I saw it on La Vallesana's menu. Online I found a Mexican butcher's chart that located suadero in the cow's flank, north of the udders. The meat itself, chopped into small pieces, struck me as similar in texture to a hanger steak, chewy but ultimately yielding.

At Taqueria la Pasadita, suadero is described as barbecued pork. I was confused but gamely ordered it. (Has anything bad ever come from the words barbecued pork?) As it happens, if you served me the beef-suadero taco from La Vallesana and the pork-suadero taco from Taqueria la Pasadita side by side, I might struggle to tell any difference. The appearance, texture and flavor were very similar.

You can order most of these meats in tortas or burritos as well as in tacos. I had a torta with a torta-specific meat, steak milanesa. This is steak pounded very thin, breaded and fried. The result is both crisp and tender and not as heavy or greasy as you might think. The rest of the torta takes care of that: The sandwich, between two halves of a thick bolillo roll, is overflowing with chopped carrots, tomato and cilantro as well as thick slivers of pickled jalapeño and wedges of ripe avocado. It's a mess to eat, but very tasty.

Tamales and the traditional Mexican soup menudo are both available, but only on weekends. The tamales are the best I've had in St. Louis. Too often tamales are a disappointment. Either the masa has a soggy or Play-Doh-like texture from sitting around too long, or the masa has no flavor at all, or both. But the pork tamales at Taqueria la Pasadita fell prey to none of these flaws. The masa had a texture and flavor an awful lot like cornbread — or, to be more precise, jalapeño cornbread: either because the heat from the pork had leached into the masa, or because there was some pepper tossed into the masa mix, it was very spicy.

It's worth planning a Saturday or Sunday visit to try the tamales. You might stumble on them by chance, but they are too good to take that risk.