I visit many restaurants -- too many to cover in the print version of the RFT. From time to time I'll share my thoughts on these visits in briefer and somewhat less formal blog-exclusive reviews.
The Mexican government recently hosted 50 American restaurateurs for lessons on what is and isn't true Mexican cuisine. I hope Canyon Café (1707 South Lindbergh Boulevard; 314-872-3443) scored an invite because over three recent visits to this Plaza Frontenac fixture, I tried an array of dishes that cited Mexican influence but didn't taste Mexican or even "Mexican." Except for a side dish of rice so heavily seasoned with cumin that I thought I'd clamped my mouth over someone's sweaty armpit, I didn't taste much of anything at all.
From the "Mex-Mex" menu (a warning sign right there), I had chicken enchiladas smothered in a blanket of bland three-pepper cream sauce -- I could see flecks of those three peppers, but they added little to the sauce -- and chicken enchiladas in a tomatillo-green chile sauce that had some tomatillo tartness but no peppery punch. A quesadilla with "fire-grilled" steak (another warning sign), blue cheese, red onion and Monterey jack (warning sign #3) was satisfying in a bland Applebee's appetizer kind of way, but the accompanying sauces were toothless: the avocado-tomatillo too light on the tomatillo, the chipotle mayonnaise too heavy on the mayo.
The quesadilla came from the "Tacos & Quesdillas" menu, whose mish-mash of Mex-Mex, Tex-Mex, Southwestern and more generic American influences could stand in for the lack of focus that plagues Canyon Café as a whole. There are "blackened" fish tacos in hard tortilla shells and soft tacos with lightly battered "Baja" shrimp. The quesadilla I had came with a salad that, although identified on the menu as "margarita slaw," tasted strongly and jarringly like sesame oil.
Not that I object on principle to playing around with different cuisines -- certainly not when they are already as interrelated as the cuisines of Mexico, Texas, the Southwest and California. And while I suppose my expectations should be low to begin with since Canyon Café is a chain, it's a small chain (just five locations according to its Web site) that allows each restaurant's executive chef some latitude with the menu.
Still, I had nothing that rose above ordinary. On my final visit I selected the carne asada from the "Signature Entrées" menu, which the Web site describes as both "Canyon-Mex" and "Chef-Mex." This was your basic backyard-grill steak -- tasty, if not especially distinctive -- topped with Monterey jack, mushroom, onion and bell pepper. It's basically one of those "smothered" dishes once featured at the T.J. O'Pootertoot's of the world, a concept nearly as dated as the soft rock playing on Canyon Café's sound system.
The Mexican government should forget the history lessons and just call in the troops.