Vicia's Taqueria Morita Serves Baja-Style Edible Bliss

The restaurant is one of the area's most thrilling destinations for regional Mexican cuisine

click to enlarge Taqueria Mortia’s shrimp aguachile (pictured) includes white soy, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and morita oil.
Andy Paulissen
Taqueria Mortia’s shrimp aguachile includes white soy, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and morita oil.

When he was a young boy growing up in Southern California, Aaron Martinez would regularly pile into the car with his family and drive south to Mexico. It was as common an occurrence as a St. Louisan packing up to go to Lake of the Ozarks for a long weekend, only instead of a bumper-to-bumper trip down the hellscape that is I-70, Martinez and company would cross the border and head down the MEX-1D for a scenic coastal drive that would lead them past any number of beachside fish-taco stands, shrimp shacks and cevicherias. Their final destination would be a campground in Rosarito Beach or Ensenada, and they'd spend their days seeking out the best spots for lobster, carne asada tacos and fresh seafood. Even as a college kid, when he was less interested in hanging out with his parents, Martinez would take his buddies down south for surfing and cervezas. These experiences were not destined to become mere memories; they helped to define his identity.

Martinez would draw upon this side of himself when he began sketching out what to do with the sprawling lawn in front of Vicia, the acclaimed restaurant where he served as executive chef before becoming culinary director of its parent company, Take Root Hospitality. As a SoCal native, Martinez would frequently lament the fact that he could not find anything in his adopted hometown that tasted like his Baja-infused childhood memories. He had it in his mind that he would one day open a Mexican restaurant to recreate those flavors — something he'd been thinking about since he was a young cook — but he was so focused on his fine-dining career that he never made it happen.

click to enlarge Aaron Martinez
Andy Paulissen
Aaron Martinez is the chef at Taqueria Morita.

The pandemic put those ideas on the front burner. Like all restaurants, the acclaimed Cortex eatery faced serious uncertainty surrounding when — or if — people would return to indoor dining. This forced the management team to get creative, so they put some tables and chairs on the front lawn and offered everything from burgers to fried chicken in place of the elegant tasting menus they had become known for. The setup turned out to be more than just a way to generate income; it became such a runaway success that Martinez, together with Vicia's owners Michael and Tara Gallina, decided to make the outdoor area into a more formal patio space. They worked with architects to create a lovely, landscaped pavilion and outdoor order counter and crowned the space Vicia Gardenside.

Martinez instantly recognized Vicia Gardenside as the perfect venue for his Baja taqueria idea. Using his childhood memories as his guide, he sketched out a menu that would finally bring to St. Louis the flavors he'd longed for after moving to town several years ago. The result of that vision, Taqueria Morita (4260 Forest Park Avenue, 314-553-9239), opened in late May and has quickly become one of the area's most thrilling destinations for regional Mexican cuisine. Anchored by Martinez's well-honed fine-dining techniques and Vicia's vegetable-forward philosophy, Taqueria Morita marries the ease and comfort of a fast-casual spot with the quality of high-end dining — an experience that feels delightfully in tune with this particular moment in the culinary zeitgeist.

Much of Taqueria Morita's joy is owed to the setting. Located in the heart of Cortex, the venue sits in the middle of a bustling, "going places" part of the city that fills you with hope for the future of the region. Taqueria Morita provides a lush overlook to this scene. Fruit trees are interspersed with other edible delights to form a beautiful foodscape. Tables and woven-backed patio chairs sit on pebble pathways through the garden, and a soaring covered pavilion serves as much as an art installation as a way to protect guests from the early evening sun.

click to enlarge The Tomatillo cocktail (right) includes sotol, blanco tequila, tomatillo, green apple, cucumber, citrus and mint. The Durazno cocktail includes blanco tequila, ginger liqueur, peach cordial and lemon.
Andy Paulissen
The Tomatillo (right) includes sotol, blanco tequila, tomatillo, green apple, cucumber, citrus and mint. The Durazno includes blanco tequila, ginger liqueur, peach cordial and lemon.

Martinez's food, however, turns this setting from simply delightful to transportative. Dishes like shrimp aguachile, which pairs slices of plump, tender shrimp with peak-of-the-season cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, are so evocative of the coast that you feel as if you can taste the salty air blowing in from the Pacific as much as the bracing citrus and white soy sauce that dresses the shellfish. A watermelon salad is equally refreshing. The ruby red fruit is so ripe it comes across like fruit juice suspended in solid form. The melon's sugary taste, together with the cooling effect of fresh mint, counters slices of fiery Serrano chilis flecked throughout the dish. Crunchy pepitas add texture, resulting in a beautifully balanced dish that feels like the quintessence of summer day dining fare.

To fully immerse yourself in Martinez's childhood memories, you must get the tacos — in particular, the ones filled with fish tempura. This taco ticks off all the boxes that make for a proper rendition of the Baja favorite: crunchy cabbage, chipotle crema, fresh jalapeños and cilantro. However, what makes it so special is the fish's texture; the coating is ridiculously crispy but so delicate it's almost fluffy, while the white fish itself is a buttery masterpiece. One bite and you understand why Martinez missed them so.

click to enlarge Someone kneels and picks herbs like chilies and basil.
Andy Paulissen
Veggies and herbs like chilies and basil are picked fresh from the garden bed outside the kitchen.

But the fish tacos are not the only tortilla masterpieces coming from Taqueria Morita's small kitchen. Carne asada — which can often be chewy — has the yielding firmness of a perfectly cooked steak. Oyster mushroom tacos, too, have a pleasantly firm texture; adorned with cashew, queso fresco and an herbaceous epazote salsa, the taco is a satisfying vegetarian umami bomb.

In place of a more common al pastor taco, Martinez prepares his pork with ripe peaches that infuse the meat with subdued summertime sweetness. It's a lovely riff. His tostada, spread thickly with whipped goat cheese and topped with scapes, pickled garlic and a charred tomato salsa, is the sort of open-faced revelation you'd expect from a fine-dining chef turned taco master. However, his most impressive handiwork is the eggplant barbacoa tacos, which are so shockingly beefy even the fiercest carnivore would be sated. Martinez details the lengths to which he goes to coax such robust flavor from the vegetable — roasting, smoking, marinating and finishing it on the grill. These efforts pay off into pure, edible bliss.

click to enlarge The eggplant barbacoa tacos pictured include shishito mojo, crispy masa and peanut salsa macha.
Andy Paulissen
The eggplant barbacoa tacos include shishito mojo, crispy masa and peanut salsa macha.

Eating that eggplant taco while sipping on one of beverage director Phil Ingram's delicious cocktails on a pleasant late summer evening, you understand why Martinez's Baja experience stuck with him. Something about being in a certain setting with distinctive flavors at a particular moment in time shows that food and drink are about more than mere sustenance; they can transport you to a special place in someone's mind — while making you feel as if there's nowhere you'd rather be.