The old commercial district -- roughly bounded by Jefferson and Compton, at the western edge of the famous antique row that also takes its name from the street -- is now a focal point for the local Hispanic community, featuring clothing stores and booteries, groceries and bakeries, and, most important to the interests of this column, a cluster of authentic sit-down and carry-out Mexican restaurants.
We made several quick visits on the strip to some (but not all) of the available choices and resolved never to succumb to corporate, Americanized "Mexican" food again.
First stop was El Rio Grande, whose somewhat imposing ornamental security door gives way to a burst of colors inside -- plaid tablecloths, orange-and-peach walls, murals depicting the original natives of the American Southwest and Central America, and Mexican and American flags proudly displayed side by side. Full meals here run from about 5-10 bucks.
The complimentary salsa continued the bold-color motif with its rich redness, a very liquid consistency with a pronounced bite and a lingering smoky aftertaste. That same hot smokiness, in variation, was in evidence in El Rio Grande's superior rendition of the Sonoran delicacy huevos rancheros, two fried eggs over rough, hard tortillas topped with another very thin but still extremely potent red-chile-based salsa. If the heat-and-smoke flavor from the salsa wasn't enough, there was even more smokiness to the accompanying order of refried beans.
A sampling of the enchiladas at El Rio Grande was also satisfactory, but these were of about the same quality as you'd find at any number of family-run Mexican restaurants both nearby and all around the metro area.
Our next destination, Taqueria Azteca, so boldly flaunts its authenticity that it advertises that its servers don't speak English. This was a bit of overstatement, because our waitress certainly knew more English than we did Spanish, but the unusual list of choices on the menu -- beef tongue, pork skins and cactus, complementing the usual suspects of beef, pork and chicken -- reinforced the proud proclamation of true Mexican heritage.
Azteca looks as if it took over one of the old diner-style lunch-counter spaces of the Cherokee strip, with shiny 12-inch ceramic tiles on the floor, white pressed tin on the ceiling and a bunch of fading Mexican travel posters decorating the grill area. The atmosphere is enhanced first by the sizzle of the cooking surface but more so by the rich aromas of the spices and ingredients, which underscore the fact that all items are made to order. The menu includes tacos (soft tortilla wrappers), gorditas (crisp tortillas top and bottom), burritos, tortas and quesadillas. We stuck primarily with the tacos ($1.50- $2), sampling the roast pork, chicken and stuffed-chile-pepper versions, and got all fired up by the chorizo-and-potato gordita, made with richly seasoned sausage, hot and spicy with a heavy overtone of cumin and cinnamon. The roast pork was our favorite of the three tacos we tried, with a texture much like pulled barbecue and a rich roasted flavor. The chile relleno taco had good fruitiness to the pepper but wasn't nearly as fiery as I would have expected.
A display cooler at the rear of the space holds scores of American and Mexican beverages, including a nonalcoholic sangria and a full selection of the exotic-fruit-flavored Mexican brand called Jarritos. Be forewarned, however, that if you sit at the table next to the cooler, you' re likely to have to scoot up frequently to accommodate the traffic.
Taqueria El Caporal, across the street and down a ways, is a bit more rustic from the outside, with a faded painted sign the primary welcoming device. Inside, it's very much a multipurpose room, with half the space dedicated to a retail counter of CDs, phone cards and other assorted merchandise and the other a dozen or so booths. In addition to the inexpensive taco menu, there's a fairly long list of full meals ranging from the not-very-round numbers of $6.49 up to $10.59.
Despite the somewhat austere atmosphere, the tacos we tried there (which we ordered as carry-out) were just terrific -- pork with a dark-red edge from cumin and other spices, augmented in the double tortilla by fresh cilantro and onions; chunks of chicken breast meat, with a liberal coating of cottage-cheese-like queso fresco. For slightly more than 3 bucks, this was a heck of a meal.
For a final stop, we ducked into the El Chico Bakery, right next door to Azteca, and for about a buck walked away with two utterly flaky filled pastries -- a pi ña and a mazana -- filled with pineapple and apple, respectively. The display case is chock-full of breads, rolls and pastries, all made fresh on the premises, and the lady behind the counter obviously took great joy in explaining to us what everything was.
A brief reality check: Although the Hispanic community -- coupled with longtime anchors like the Record Exchange, the St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom and the nearby Southpointe Hospital (née Lutheran Medical Center) -- has provided that strip of Cherokee with a certain level of stability, the area is still dotted with boarded-up buildings, beeper stores and perhaps the highest concentration of rent-to-own outlets in the entire metropolitan area. It's working its way back up, and the restaurant and bakery owners made us feel tremendously welcome, but you may have to squint a bit to see the district's full potential. (It also doesn't help that the marketing geniuses in City Hall not only still have the street lined with parking meters -- hey, gotta collect those quarters -- but also serendipitously manage to send out the enforcement squad right at lunchtime, just when the pigeons, er, customers are flocking to the area. Patrons will certainly be eager to return after exercising the privilege of paying a parking ticket that cost more than their lunch.)
Nonetheless, take some change (for the meters), take a sense of adventure, and take an appetite. Cherokee Street is loaded with plenty of options for a low-cost south-of-the-border feast.
EL RIO GRANDE, 2843 Cherokee, 776-3169.
TAQUERIA AZTECA, 2632 Cherokee, 664-9551.
TAQUERIA EL CAPORAL, 2817 Cherokee, 773-0992.
EL CHICO BAKERY, 2634 Cherokee, 664-2212. Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.