Owner Teresa Armendariz was working Tarahumara's front counter when I approached and asked her what was good. "Well, we have new tacos and burritos," she said.
I was confused. Neither the menu nor the special board made any mention of burritos, and as far as tacos, only a steak version was on offer. Neither seemed to fit in with the other items that Tarahumara touted on its bill of fare — tortas, chilaquiles, creamed chicken with corn.
I pressed her a little.
"We've had a lot of people ask us for them," Armendariz explained in heavily accented English. "I don't think people know what we are. We're not like the other places around here — people think our food isn't Mexican, but we're from Chihuahua."
Armendariz is right. Tarahumara is unlike the other restaurants that populate the Cherokee Street district — or most of St. Louis, for that matter. We're used to seeing dishes from the southern part of Mexico, not her native northwest with its rugged mountains and forests. (The restaurant's name is a tribute to the Tarahumara people, who are indigenous to the region.) And beyond that, the ubiquity of Tex-Mex in the Midwest has also greatly influenced how we think of Mexican cuisine. If it's not a combo platter with refried beans, rice and guacamole, we don't know what to do with it.
This leaves Armendariz and her husband Luis Navarro in a quandary. Since moving to the area twenty years ago, the pair has been unable to find food that's representative of their native Chihuahua. The first-time restaurant owners opened Tarahumara in February because they wanted to fill this niche. But precisely because of its unfamiliarity, they contend, prospective diners walk up, look at the menu and move on to the taquerias down the street.
I understand why hungry passersby might be inclined to keep moving — if they notice the place at all. Tarahumara is marked only by a banner that blends in with the building. Its interior is austere, with bright orange and yellow painted walls serving as the only decoration. Booths line one side, tables the other, and the only real cues that the restaurant is open are the two televisions that play a Spanish language music-video channel.
For those who stay long enough to order, however, Tarahumara is a gem in the making. The best example of this is its torta especial, a glorious sandwich that puts American-style club sandwiches to shame. The bread makes this dish: Tarahumara uses a Mexican roll that's one part soft, buttery brioche and another part flaky Vietnamese banh-mi-style baguette. It's stuffed with thickly sliced roast beef, ham, melted Chihuahua cheese and mashed avocado. This alone should put the place on the map.
Tarahumara touts its gorditas as the house specialty, and it's clear why. The gorditas rojas are handmade corn tortillas, ground with mild red peppers to give them a sweet flavor and vibrant red-orange hue. The tortillas are deep fried, then hollowed out like a pita pocket and filled with picadillo, a blend of seasoned ground beef and potatoes. Shredded lettuce, tomatoes and crema garnish the plate. It's a mild dish on its own, but the accompanying (not too) hot sauce gives it a piquant kick.
The gorditas harina, unlike the roja version, are made from flour. Diners have several choices of fillings, including creamy shredded chicken with corn. Think of it as a delicious Mexican-style chicken salad. My favorite, though, was the poblano version, a blend of the lightly spicy green peppers with melted white Chihuahua cheese. This glorious concoction — the filling has the consistency of spinach dip — was so good I wanted to eat it out of a bowl with a spoon.
The same fillings for the gorditas are also available as sopes, though I found these to be on the chewy side. The sopes toppings — simple refried beans with salty Chihuahua cheese, or shredded beef and tomatillo salsa — would have both made excellent fillings for the gorditas. Flautas, filled with under-seasoned ground beef and topped with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream, were adequate, though unremarkable compared to some of the other dishes.
Tarahumara's house specialty is chilaquiles, a dish from northwestern Mexico that could be considered the worldly cousin to bar nachos. Housemade tortillas (about triple the thickness of chips) are cut into triangles, deep fried and spread out over the plate. Verdant tomatillo salsa is at once refreshing and fiery hot — a lovely combination. Pulled chicken and a drizzle of crema finish the plate. It's messy and doesn't photograph well — the menu has a picture that doesn't do it justice — but it's well worth the extra napkins.
Though Tarahumara's menu touts its charbroiled chicken front and center with a large color photograph, it wasn't available on either of my visits. Armendariz explained that they anticipated it being their house specialty, but no one ordered it and they ended up throwing it away every night. But when they stopped offering it, immediately, people began asking for it.
The couple is in the process of adding it back, possibly on weekends only. On one of my visits, Armendariz had cooked some up for her dinner and brought me out a sample of the juicy, pineapple-infused meat. If this tease was indication of what Tarahumara was capable of doing with chicken, I look forward to the day I can order a whole piece.
Armendariz admits that she and Navarro are still trying to figure things out — this is their first time owning a restaurant, and they aren't really sure what they are doing. They're giving it a year, she says, explaining that it will give them the time to see if their plan is viable.
There are a few details to tweak — the menu, the signage, how they advertise their offerings. They have the most important thing down pat, however: their food. I hope they can work out the rest so we can continue enjoying it.