On this sleepy Saturday afternoon, the gray sky spitting drizzle, the Mexican enclave along Cherokee Street a few blocks west of Jefferson Avenue could be any neighborhood in St. Louis. I mean, it's different. There are the taquerias and bodegas, of course. Window signs advertise six-cents-a-minute phone cards and tax preparers who habla español. The knock-off Calvin decal on the back of someone's Chevy pickup is pissing on the Guadalajara soccer team.
But everyone's got that walk. The Saturday Shuffle. Maybe you're hungover. Maybe you're exhausted from the work week. Probably you're a little of both. The only things that can drag you from bed on a day this gloomy are your kids, your pets or your stomach.
My cats woke me up, but it was my stomach that sent me shuffling down to Cherokee Street again.
I'm sitting in the Taqueria El Torito, my head still cloudy from the wine I drank at dinner last night and the double scotch I had after. I'm here for the third time in a week to try the mole con guajolote, available weekends only, but right now I'm jonesing for El Torito's sopa casera, homemade soup. If it has a more specific name, I don't want to know. It's a rich chicken broth spiked with tomato and whatever noodles the kitchen has handy. It's blessedly simple, a rush of flavor and pure, cozy goodness.
Best of all, the soup is free. I guess this isn't any more generous than the gratis chips and salsa you get at just about every Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurant, but it seems more so to me, a bit less like my appetite is being sated, a bit more like I'm being welcomed into a home.
It's an especially nice gesture because despite the humble connotations of the word taqueria Taqueria El Torito is a large space, closer to a cafeteria than a taqueria or restaurant. In fact, the taqueria is part of an even larger space, the El Torito Market (which this paper last week named "Best Mexican Market"), where you can shop for meat, produce, baked goods and an astonishing array of canned beans and dried peppers, as well as Jarritos (awesome fruit-flavored sodas) and the syrup-heavy Mexican version of Coca-Cola. (I happen to prefer the American version. I like the bubbles. But I'll admit: The extra syrup is great for dousing spicy foods.)
The front of Taqueria El Torito's menu notes that its cuisine comes from Michoacán, a state on Mexico's Pacific coast. (Diana Kennedy, who has done more than just about anyone else to popularize authentic Mexican cuisine in the United States, lives there now.) I read a little about Michoacán cuisine and learned that it's purportedly home to the best carnitas (pork fried in its own fat) in all of Mexico, so on my first visit to Taqueria El Torito I ordered a carnitas torta.
Tortas are sandwiches stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, carrot, avocado, jalapeño peppers and cheese. The carnitas are great, a tasty balance of crisp char and deeply savory meat, and the large sandwich bun, though neither very crusty nor very hard, holds together surprisingly well under all the condiments. My fiancée had a torta with pollo empanizado chicken pounded thin, then breaded and fried, as in schnitzel and it's just as good as the pork, the breading crisp, the meat tender and not at all greasy.
Accompanying the tortas were two sauces, one a fiery red chile sauce, the other a thick and not-much-less-fiery green chile sauce. The same sauces came with the three tacos I had on my second visit: one carne asada, one chorizo, one lengua (tongue). All three were excellent, especially the chorizo, which was sharply spiced and smoky. The only downside to ordering these three tacos was knowing that I'd ignored (for the time being, anyway) the other six kinds El Torito offers.
Another torta or taco is tempting, but as I said, I've come back today for the mole con guajolote, two roasted turkey legs in a traditional mole poblano a thick blend of smoky, mildly spicy chile peppers with an unmistakable undercurrent of unsweetened chocolate. It's the perfect dish for a day like this: rich and comforting, with just enough pepper to give you a jolt. In fact, as I leave, the sun peeks through a break in the clouds and I have a definite spring in my step.
After my first visit to Garduño's, a few doors east of El Torito, I wrote in my notebook, "Gotta try the fish!" I'd stopped in for lunch and ordered tacos (two carne asada, two chorizo), partly because I wanted tacos, partly because I was surprised and overwhelmed by the length of Garduño's menu. My tacos were good, though the flavors weren't quite as intense as at Taqueria El Torito. But I loved the red chile sauce that accompanied them; it had a bright, almost citric, edge.
As I was scooping up the last of this sauce with chips, the waitress brought the fish to the next booth. It was a whole fish, head to tail, fried and topped with a mix of sautéed onions, tomatoes and green bell peppers; on the side were refried beans, rice, pico de gallo and tortillas. The smell was intoxicating, like walking into a fish fry on the first Friday of Lent.
This is mojara dorada, and I ordered it when I returned to Garduño's on a busy Sunday afternoon. Mojarra, as it's more commonly spelled, is actually the name for a family of about 40 different species of saltwater fish. (We throw around the "snapper" label in much the same way.) The mojarra on my plate was about ten inches long, with plump fillets. The kitchen had made a half-dozen incisions down the length of each fillet which increased the surface area for the light, tempura-like batter and sped cooking time.
The fish had been cooked perfectly. Skin and batter were crisp, with a slightly peppery seasoning. The flesh was sweet and incredibly moist. Of course, the mojarra hadn't been pulled out of the ocean that morning, but it was easy to pretend.
On my return visit to Garduño's, both my fiancée and our friend ordered from the selection of combination platters. Everything I sampled from their plates was great, especially a pork tamale slathered in a mild green tomatillo salsa. Too often, even at otherwise excellent Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, tamales suffer from bland or mealy masa, but Garduño's had a rich corn flavor that stood up to the salsa and the pork.
For those unfamiliar with or maybe a bit daunted by Cherokee Street, Garduño's is a perfect starting point. You get chips and a thin but scorching salsa when you sit down. You can cool the salsa's fire with creamy, lime-sprinkled homemade guacamole while you choose from a very wide selection of combination platters, house specialties, tacos and tortas. You can even if you have room finish with fried ice cream.
Careful, though. Once you start visiting Cherokee, you may find it difficult to stop. I've visited every day for a week and I still haven't crossed the street.