Finding La Tejana is a challenge, even if Google Maps or your GPS device pinpoints the dingy strip mall on North Lindbergh Boulevard, just south of St. Charles Rock Road, the taqueria calls home. Anchoring the strip mall is a market, Tienda la Tejana, which has the same name and owner as the taqueria, but not the same entrance. In the middle of the strip is a sign bearing the taqueria's name and logo — the silhouette of a shapely woman in boots and a cowboy hat and brandishing a six shooter — but there is no entrance here, either, only a window, through which you might catch a tantalizing glimpse of a solitary diner squeezing a lime wedge over a plate of tacos, his fingers seeming to press the fruit together in slow motion, mocking, mocking.
Keep going. The taqueria and the liquor store next to it, Garcia Liquors, are actually one contiguous storefront, which you enter through the liquor store. Such is the casual — and very Mexican — nature of the taqueria that if you want a beer (or soda) with your meal, you take it yourself from one of the liquor store's refrigerated cases. The selection includes popular Mexican beers and, yes, Four Loko. (Sorry, kids: This is the new formula, without caffeine.)
The dining room is spare: a few tables, religious pictures, beer ads. Three flat-screen TV monitors, two affixed to the wall, one perched atop an old filing cabinet, show movies or fútbol highlights. There's no printed menu. A handwritten menu is taped to the wall, and specials, one per sheet of paper, are then taped to this. Sometimes the cook comes out of the kitchen to take your order, sometimes whoever's working the register does.
By now, of course, you know the taqueria taco drill: The meat of your choice is topped with chopped raw onion and cilantro and served in two corn tortillas, with lime wedges and salsa on the side. There are two salsas here, a rojo and a verde. The former is a vibrant orange-red, with a smoky, fiery flavor. The salsa verde is much milder, its flavor more subtle, a touch fruity.
Of the meat selections for your taco, the only one I didn't recognize was campechanos. As it turns out, this is not a specific cut of meat but rather a combination of thinly sliced steak and chorizo. The pairing is brilliant, with the sharply flavored chorizo adding spark to the savory steak — or, if you like, the steak rounding out the peppery chorizo. Since I tried La Tejana's tacos campechanos, I've found references online to variations that add chicharrones to the steak and chorizo, which would elevate them to a status at or maybe just below ambrosial.
Carne asada and chorizo are available by themselves, as are lengua (tongue), suadero (meat from a cow's belly) and cabeza. Cabeza refers to meat from the head of the cow. While this can collectively mean everything in the head, including brains and eyeballs, here it is muscle meat, with a mildly beefy flavor ridged with luscious fat.
Regular readers know of my abiding love for tacos al pastor. While I wouldn't classify La Tejana's as the best in town, they certainly don't disappoint. These are brawny tacos, the meat's natural flavor dominant. Indeed, unlike many versions, there are no pineapple bits, and while the meat is red with achiote and other seasonings, these provide a mild accent.
Besides tacos, La Tejana offers tortas and a few plates with a protein plus rice and refried beans. The tortas are the typical glorious mess, crusty bolillos (rolls) overstuffed with meat and vegetables. A welcome touch here: Though messy, these sandwiches aren't slathered with too much mayonnaise, which can render the bread an unpleasant mush.
If you can visit here only once, it should be on the weekend, when the kitchen makes carnitas. That La Tejana treats as a special what many Mexican restaurants serve daily should signal the seriousness of its intent. The carnitas is fantastic, the most flavorful I've had in St. Louis, the exterior walnut brown and crisp, the interior fork tender. The flavor is exactly what you would expect from pork simmered for hours in its own lard: a touch sweet, a touch funky, mostly piggy. Order the carnitas as a plate, and you receive a stack of corn tortillas in which to wrap the meat, and, if you want an extra kick of flavor, some of that red or green salsa.
The meal was so tasty that the cashier, mistaking my postprandial expression of satisfaction for incredulity — or perhaps derangement — inquired whether I'd ever tried carnitas before.
I have, of course — many times — and the carnitas at La Tejana aren't so amazing as to transport me to flights of hyperbole. You know: "I feel like I'd never had carnitas until I had yours!"
What they were was...different.
I write about Mexican restaurants with some frequency in this column, but I don't pretend to be an expert on all Mexican cuisine. Indeed, with each visit to a taqueria, with each twist on tacos al pastor, with each unfamiliar cut or style of meat, I realize how much I have yet to learn. The trick isn't to carry around a checklist of what dishes and regions I have and haven't experienced but to recognize when a restaurant — or simply a single dish — has an authentic personal touch.
Fitting then that La Tejana doesn't feel like a restaurant. This unassuming spot is more like a home.