Señor Circuit: Ian discovers Señor Pique's in a league of its own

I liked Señor Pique even before I'd set foot in the place. This was a few years ago, when the Mexican restaurant shared an old house with a barbershop just west of the intersection of Manchester Road and Highway 141. It was the house I liked, one of several along this stretch of Manchester, wonderfully incongruous amid the west-county sprawl. It didn't resemble a typical Mexican restaurant. Really, it didn't look like a restaurant at all.

I liked Señor Pique even more once I was sitting at a table, browsing the menu. The old menu featured a great slogan: "It's all about being made by Mexicans!" Now this could probably apply to many restaurants in St. Louis, Mexican and otherwise, but that's a subject for another day. What I really dug about this menu was that many of the dishes were marked with the letter M to denote an "authentic Mexican dish."

Now, I love Mexican food. As regular readers know, I love the humble taquerias on Cherokee Street and the no-frills joints in the Woodson Terrace area. And when I'm eating off the clock, especially when I need to recover from a few too many gin-and-tonics the night before, my first choice is usually a nearby Mexican joint (you know the one) where I can fortify myself with a plate of chile Colorado and a heap of refried beans smothered in cheese.

That said, by a conservative estimate, 94 percent of the Mexican restaurants in St. Louis offer the same menu. While one place might have better tamales and another better carnitas, I'm always seeking something different. Though not everything Señor Pique marked "M" was different (chiles rellenos, camarones a la diabla), enough dishes were to catch my attention.

Since last year, when this paper named Señor Pique Best Mexican Restaurant, it has relocated a little over a mile west on Manchester Road. (The former location is now the Cactus Grill, which features Mexican and Persian cuisine. That's right: Mexican and Persian.) The new Señor Pique used to be an O'Charley's, a stand-alone building in a strip-mall parking lot. A seat on the restaurant's ample patio affords views of HomeGoods, Marshalls and a Starbucks drive-through. On the other side of the parking lot is an Applebee's. I'll be frank: The new neighborhood ain't looking so good.

Its interior is quite large. I counted four distinct seating areas — one of which appeared to be closed on each of my visits, likely because the patio was so popular during a spell of gorgeous weather — as well as the bar. There is even a stage and makeshift dance floor at the far end of one dining room, across from the kitchen. Though I would have loved to have seen servers navigating through a throng of dancers while bearing full trays of food — what can I say? I'm a bad person — both the stage and dance floor remained empty while I was there.

The upshot of all this is that Señor Pique now looks like most other Mexican restaurants in town, with the requisite décor on the walls, Spanish-language music playing (very loudly) over the speakers and a generic tartness to the margaritas that will evoke memories of countless evenings lost somewhere in a bottomless basket of tortilla chips.

Thankfully, the menu is much the same. I didn't see the "It's all about being made by Mexicans!" line anywhere, but the scarlet M remains. I recommend you focus on these dishes. Not because the other dishes aren't good, but you have had them before, and you will have them again — and, if you're like I am, Ballwin is too far to drive for a plate of boring old enchiladas.

The very brave should try the chile morita con puerco. This brings hunks of tender pork loin meat in a sauce made from morita chiles. The dish is hot. Very, very hot. How hot? On this menu, it is the only dish whose description carries a warning: "Be aware that this is a spicy plate." My server wanted to make sure that I understood this. Yes, yes, I told him. Bring it on. At some point that night — I think maybe a half-hour after I'd left the restaurant — my lips finally cooled.

Online I learned that the morita chile packs quite a wallop: 75,000 Scoville units. That is almost ten times hotter than the ordinary jalapeño — though still nowhere near as hot as certain habañeros. (The August issue of Gourmet magazine features the bhut jolokia, an Indian chile that is positively thermonuclear, scoring over 1 million Scoville units.) The flavor is very strong, with a smoky quality reminiscent of chipotle peppers. I dug it. And I also liked the accompanying rice. Unlike the standard Mexican-restaurant rice — which you can find here, too — it was white rice flavored with epazote. The strong flavor was a nice complement to the searing pork.

The pasilla chile provides the dominant flavor in another unique dish, the molcajete. The name refers to the Mexican equivalent of a mortar, a large stone bowl. Here the molcajete is filled with pork, chicken and steak as well as sautéed onions marinated with the very earthy pasilla chile; a slice of grilled nopales cactus sits atop the meat. I suppose you could eat the food directly out of the molcajete, but on the side are homemade tortillas, the corn masa lightly seasoned and heavily colored with cilantro. As I said, pasilla chiles have a very earthy flavor — so much so that I found myself wishing for an additional seasoning — the restaurant's sharp salsa verde, for example — to provide contrast.

Traditional mole isn't uncommon in these parts, but each restaurant has its own style, and I liked Señor Pique's mole very much. Served over chicken in the mole de puebla, the sauce has a rich, bittersweet flavor that evokes chocolate without actually tasting like chocolate. The heat builds gradually, but never exceeds a simmer. It's a lovely dish, and both it and the chile morita con puerco are plated with a little style, again elevating this restaurant above the usual.

Not that the usual doesn't have its place. The tacos al pastor are fine, the pork tender, the pineapple (one long sliver rather than several chopped pieces) succulent. But the pork was too heavily seasoned — I swear I tasted cinnamon. The tacos come with a cup of porky frijoles charros and a salty potato-onion hash. The chiles rellenos is relatively restrained: poblano peppers, lightly battered, filled with molten Chihuahua cheese and topped with a bland salsa. This was the one dish that I ordered that came with the standard refried beans and "Mexican" rice, and I was disappointed with each.

But I didn't come to Señor Pique for rice and beans. I came, in part, for the one-of-a-kind ambience of its original location. Sadly, that is gone. But as long as there are enough of those "M" dishes, I'll be back.