Dining » Cafe

Cheesy It Ain't

Espino's joins the upper echelon of Mexican restaurants in St. Louis


I'm a true Gemini and my world consists of shades of gray. I see both sides of an argument while tossing in a few lateral thoughts of my own. I drink boxed wine on ice while barbecuing, then turn around and savor an expensive bottle of cabernet sauvignon as I prepare beef Wellington. It's the duality of the Gemini twins that allows me to derive pleasure from seemingly conflicting viewpoints.

That's the reason why I like big plates of messy Mexican food, the kind loaded down with spicy ground beef, mounds of cheddar cheese, pools of refried beans, a head of shredded lettuce, buckets of sour cream and a stack of warm flour tortillas. I know it's Americanized fare, but I'm the guy who'll drink a cold bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a pint of Smithwicks Ale.

Before you label me a spineless, Zelig-like cipher, when it comes to food and drink, I always come down on the side of taste. Fortunately, when I want it, I can get my fill of cheap eats at just about every Mexican restaurant in St. Louis -- because, unfortunately, that's what a lot of people want (no doubt those damn stiff-necked Taurus bulls). I like Americanized Mexican food, but for pure satisfaction I'll choose the higher-quality Mexican restaurant every time. Blame it on Venus, my personal planet that's bestowed in me a quest for beauty and harmony.

This is why I'd place Espino's Mexican Bar and Grill in the top echelon of St. Louis Mexican restaurants.

Chef, owner and Mexican native Artemio Espino -- along with his Italian wife, Roseanne, and her brother Joe Scognamiglio -- has crafted something more than a bar and grill, something more than just another standard Mexican restaurant. The Espinos moved back to St. Louis (Roseanne's hometown) just four months ago after spending a few years in Chicago, where Artemio worked for a kosher caterer as well as in a Mexican restaurant.

Espino transformed the space, which is situated in a Chesterfield Valley strip mall, into a Mexican open-air market on one side and a cantina on the other. He did much of the work himself, including building the booths and orchestrating the overall ambiance of the place.

Unlike a lot of Mexican restaurants that tout "authentic" food and never deliver, Espino's doesn't bother with the moniker. That's good for two reasons: First, it allows the kitchen more leeway in tweaking Mexican dishes; second, authentic Mexican cuisine doesn't sell in St. Louis. So while we found the expected nachos, quesadillas and chimichangas, we were pleased to find several dishes outside the comfort zone of most Mexican restaurants.

For instance, I've never seen pescado al mojo de ajo on a local Mexican menu before, but after listening to Espino's near-giddy description of his preparation of the whole sea bass during our initial visit, I had to order it the second time around. Espino sautés the fish in white wine, slathers it with roasted garlic, then tops it with chopped onions, cilantro and a big squeeze of lime juice. The garlic flavor is delicate and mild, a good companion to the gentle flavor of the firm, moist fish.

Espino's take on pescado a la Veracruzana substitutes sliced black olives for the green olives usually added to the tomatoes and onions topping the grilled red snapper fillet. We liked the smoky, grilled flavor of the fish but thought a dab of the accompanying fresh salsa brightened the dish tremendously. We also thought the accompanying side dishes, refried beans and Spanish rice, were a bit predictable and ho-hum. A side dish such as roasted asparagus would have elevated the entrées a notch or two.

Salsa and guacamole are the standard-bearers of any Mexican restaurant. They're usually the first impression we have, and if we're dissatisfied, the whole menu is suspect. Espino's red salsa has a good, strong fresh-tomato-and-cilantro flavor, but make sure you also ask for a serving of the green salsa. Its delicate tomatillo flavor, combined with the gentle zing from the chiles, is neither wimpy nor overpowering. The guacamole was chunky with avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro, a bit of jalapeño pepper, a healthy dose of lime juice and, thankfully, no sour cream. We quickly devoured our guac, leaving behind the little tortilla bowl and the bed of refried beans used to secure the edible bowl to the plate.

The ceviche salad embodies Espino's unusual methods of preparation. Rather than "cooking" the raw shrimp and scallops in a citrus marinade, Espino first blanches the shellfish, then uses the marinade to finish the "cooking." He says that it helps the shrimp and scallops stay fresher and ensures proper doneness. The shellfish are then tossed with tomato, onion, avocado and cilantro and served on a bed of shredded lettuce in a tortilla bowl.

Mole, that distinctive chile sauce invented by Aztec priests and often spiked with bitter chocolate, has as many variations as there are regions in Mexico. Espino's version uses a bit of Mexican bitter chocolate, mixed with spices, for both the rojo and the verde sauces. We ordered the dark brown rojo for the pollo con mole, which proved a good pairing with the succulent roasted half-chicken. Carne asada, a popular dish invented in the 1940s, was the best I've had in ages: citrus-marinated, garlicky, tender skirt steak grilled medium-rare, dripping with lip-smacking juices. Again, though, the bean-and-rice side dishes were getting tiresome.

Espino's smartly offers only Spanish wines, including a Vega Sindoa rosé. There are five whites and six reds, all available by the glass ($6 to $8) and bottles ranging from $24 to $32. Tequila is prominently featured, with over twenty selections and flights of three glasses ranging from $9.50 to $12.

It rarely happens, but we did get a glass of oxidized red wine (smells and tastes like sherry when exposed to the air too long). But when I suggested that our server open a new bottle and compare the two, he quickly replaced the errant glass with a fresh pour. Of course, there's a full range of beers and margaritas, including Dos Equis Amber on draft and a luscious mango 'rita.

On the sweet side, the tres leches cake had all the glory of the authentic dense, moist butter cake that's soaked in three types of milk and topped with a smooth layer of whipped cream. Unfortunately, the cake suffered from overexposure in the refrigerator, imparting that annoying stale taste. In addition to sopapillas, flan and s'mores (yes, s'mores, and they looked good), Espino makes a few special desserts. One night it was something called an "apple gift bag": a large soft tortilla stuffed with slices of fresh apple, spices and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, then bunched like a pouch and deep-fried. The result is like tasty apple pie à la mode enclosed in its own handy bag.

As the Chesterfield Valley continues to grow, more restaurants will sprout. While Espino's doesn't claim to be authentic, it does seek to strike that harmonic balance between Mexican, Spanish and Southwestern styles.

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