On the very first page of its menu, Diablitos Cantina aims to set itself apart from the crowd of local Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. "We believe in offering our guests the freshest food made with the highest quality ingredients," reads a note that precedes the section headed "Bocaditos" (snacks), "therefore, complimentary chips and salsa are not available."
Instead, for $2 per person, you and your tablemates can munch housemade chips till the cows come home and reload at the restaurant's salsa bar whenever the mood strikes.
Now, I can think of several reactions one might have upon learning that he or she is about to chow down at a restaurant that charges for chips and salsa. One might applaud a chef for taking a principled stand. One might shrug, having thought nothing of trading cash for chips countless times at Chipotle, that paragon of ethical fast-casual chain dining (no bottomless supply, either). One might get up and leave in a huff.
Let me suggest that the most appropriate response is wary relief. If Diablitos Cantina is charging you $2 for these chips and salsas, then you definitely don't want the chips and salsa they'd have given you for free.
Diablitos opened just before Christmas, the latest venture from Ami Grimes and Gurpreet Prada, whose In Good Company firm also operates Café Ventana, Sanctuaria and the craft brewery Cathedral Square. Diablitos is located just off Laclede Avenue amid a cluster of Saint Louis University dorms; in fact, SLU owns the building. Step through the door, though, and you're not on campus anymore. The décor is to kitsch what Soviet socialist realism is to propaganda, which is to say an appalling apotheosis. Dozens of large, punched-tin "star" light fixtures cluster above the front half of the large dining room — so many that you might wonder if you've wandered into a lighting showroom that specializes in large, punched-tin "star" fixtures. Catholic iconography abounds, including an entire wall covered with reclaimed church doors of varying shapes and sizes. There is a mirror ball of sorts, fashioned from a trio of Day of the Dead-style skulls, stacked one atop the other, and spinning.
Of course, kitsch tends to recede from view if you're distracted by good food.
If there's one cuisine that's malleable enough to be molded into virtually any dining concept, from the most elegant white-tablecloth palace to the ramshacklest roadside dive — and every conceivable permutation in between — Mexican is that cuisine. And then there's Diablitos, the improbable exception that proves the rule, starting with that two-buck chips-and-salsa-stravaganza. The chips are OK, thin and crisp and very lightly salted (though where you see "very lightly salted," go ahead and substitute "unsalted," unless you're endowed with one of those hair-trigger palates that can detect salinity in the parts-per-trillion range). The salsa bar, which seemed promising in theory, was a major letdown. A pair of fruit-based renditions tasted far less intriguing than their bright colors advertised: The watermelon salsa tasted like watermelon; the mango salsa like mango. The salsa verde was an ordinary purée of tangy tomatillo, and the pico de gallo was what you'd expect, but nothing more. The "very hot" salsa was. But it tasted like it could strip paint. And the house salsa tasted like ketchup. (To me, anyway; a friend begged to differ, contending, "Ketchup would be a little spicy. This tastes like tomato sauce.")
If you want to enjoy your chips, order the guacamole. You don't get much for your $5, but what you do get is a well-calibrated blend of distinct flavors: avocado, a hint of tomato and red onion, a spritz of lime.
Much of the menu takes its inspiration from Mexican street food. (There's also onion rings, fries and chicken wings, which perhaps we can credit to NAFTA.) An order of tacos al pastor certainly looked the part; nice-size hunks of braised pork topped with a pineapple salsa, wrapped in Diablitos' flour tortillas, which are made in-house and have a pleasantly light chew. But the plate was done in by an utter lack of seasoning. A grilled-steak torta didn't make it beyond the eye test, either; a few bites in, it became clear that something was missing: the steak. This was a $10 refried-bean sandwich with a handful of tiny pieces of chopped meat hidden within. The torta came with fries, crisp, perfectly salted and almost certainly the best thing to emerge from Diablitos' kitchen and make its way to my table.
Some offerings have the chef venturing into Tex-Mex territory. "Jumbo Shrimp Fajitas" dispensed with the sizzling-platter presentation; you get a half-dozen decidedly not-jumbo shrimp, a few slices of onion and green pepper. The three flour tortillas supplied on the side prove to be more than sufficient to accommodate this undersized portion; I ran out of fixings after about a tortilla and a half. (Shrimp, incidentally, is the only meat on the menu that's described as "farm-raised.")
The masa in the sweet-corn tamales is moist and flavorful, but that subtle success — so seldom achieved in Mexican kitchens north of the border — is sunk by a too-rich cheese sauce and, once again, underseasoned pork. The drizzle of smoky chipotle chile sauce over the tamales had just the right kick: Put that on the unlimited salsa bar, and I'd go back for seconds.
I got a fleeting impression that the adobo-spiced chicken that filled the enchiladas suizas was brightly flavored, but the salsa verde and crema that topped — make that engulfed — the fluted tortillas quickly smothered that sensation. "The Austin" — adobo chicken (or for a few dollars more, pork or steak) stuffed inside a flour tortilla, which is then flash-fried — was a similar casualty, swamped by a viscous avalanche of cheese sauce and guacamole.
Service ranged from brusque to inept. On one visit a modest crowd had servers frantically waving across the room to customers waiting to be seated, a gesture that either meant, "I'll seat you as soon as I can," or "Help!" Several patrons got so thirsty awaiting drink refills that they brought their empty glasses to the bar. On another visit the bar was so backed up that it took fifteen minutes to fill a request for a beer and a simple cocktail. Said cocktail, made of tequila, simple syrup and lemon-lime soda and dubbed "Pablo's Paloma," tasted pretty good, as did the house margarita. The beer list includes the expected Mexican brews, selections from Cathedral Square and A-B's Natural Light.
I can think of several reactions one might have upon sighting Natty Light at a stateside cantina. One might cock a cynical eyebrow and chalk it up to the Walmart-ization of American culture. One might sigh ruefully and order a Corona, unaware that both brews are owned by the same company.
Me? I prefer to view it as a positive sign. It demonstrates that at some level, Diablitos is attuned to its target demographic. We are, after all, on a college campus.
There's a lot more to a well-conceived restaurant, of course, than one low-end beer. And if Diablitos is ever to rise above the densely populated chips-and-salsa scrum, the kitchen still has a ways to go. Why would we need a street-vendor-themed restaurant when we have actual street vendors, not to mention trucks and taquerias?
And for those who seek the simple pleasure of chips and salsa, there are plenty of places where the chips are in abundance, the salsa's decent, and both are free.