But for a stolen car in San Diego, St. Louis might never have tasted Salvador and Adela Esparza's Mexican home cooking.
The Esparzas relocated to St. Louis seven years ago after the theft of Salvador's car and some positive reports from his sister, who had moved here six months earlier. "She told me it was like a very small town," says Salvador, who had split time growing up between San Diego and Zacatecas in central Mexico. His prior food-service experience came at the Sheraton in La Jolla, California, where he had worked his way up to banquet supervisor after starting near the bottom of the ladder.
Their restaurant here, Lily's, is located a couple of blocks east of the Bevo Mill in a building that now carries the colors of Mexico but began its life as a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tagline is "home-style Mexican food," and that pretty well sums it up: Orders are taken at the counter, cooked by Adela in the back from family recipes and brought out to tables with assistance from Salvador, who also regularly cruises the dining room to ensure that everyone's happy.
The menu selection is fairly basic: burritos, tortas, tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, tamales and sopes, with combination plates that can be built with those or with stand-alone main dishes of carne asada, carnitas and chiles rellenos. Salvador also runs a margarita bar that features pick-your-own tequilas. (The "house brand" is Jose Cuervo, but Salvador also offers about ten others, including Galardon, Don Julio and Herradura in reposado and añejo grades. And if you're really adventurous, you can drink straight shots of these or two Mexican brandies.)
But the fairly straightforward menu selection is elevated immediately by the salsa bar, which features a selection of six family recipes plus pickled jalapeños, with chips and several ramekins dispensed as soon as you place your order. We were quickly enamored of a creamy, reddish-gold selection made from chiles de arbols and thickened with ground tortilla -- tangibly hot but featuring a roasted-corn edge. Other interesting choices included another, less fiery jalapeño selection with lots of cilantro and a barely hot salsa with a fruity edge complemented by diced onions.
We sampled the main menu by constructing four of the "Lily's Specials" combination plates, full meals at either $7.49 or $7.99. The carnitas were probably the best, a huge plate of cubed pork with a visible line of fat still on each piece, lightly seasoned and fried. The result is a taste somewhere between ribs and bacon. They're served with a large plop each of beans and rice, along with lettuce, tomato and onion and a smaller plop of guacamole. The carne asada was almost identical, with the substitution of a single long, very thin piece of quickly (but not quickly enough) seared beef that had a texture like a cross-cut of top sirloin. Thirty seconds less on the grill, probably, and it would have been near perfect, but the one we got was just a wee bit dry, although it still retained enough juice to make it pleasant.
Another combination allowed us to work through one each of the cheese enchilada, tamal and chile relleno; the chile was wonderful in every aspect except that, personally, I prefer a bit more heat. The batter on the exterior had a pronounced egg flavor, and the mild melted white cheese on the inside was more of a condiment than a dominant flavor. The tamal had a moist cornmeal exterior, and the enchilada was also hot and freshly made. Then there was a plate based on sopes, little inverted saucers of corn dough that looked to us much like English muffins, by our choice topped with moist shreds of chicken breast and, like the other platters, served with rice and beans.
For dessert, Lily's offers flan -- rich and just slightly bitter from the caramelization of the syrup -- and cheesecake. Beverage selections, in addition to the hard stuff, include a soda fountain and a choice of Jarritos and other Mexican soft drinks, as well as domestic beer and imported cervezas. Each day also features a special soup, culminating with weekend features of menudo at lunchtime and pozole for dinner.
Meals tend to come out within about ten minutes of your ordering them, although on our second visit, with about eight tables occupied in a short period, Salvador and Adela were moving around the room at a much faster pace and the meal took closer to 20 minutes, leaving us more time to wander through the various wonders on the salsa bar.
So if the whole operation is essentially run by Salvador and Adela, who's this Lily person? "She's my cousin," says Salvador. He adds that the building is owned by his aunt, who also owns a tortilla factory in California, and so the restaurant is named after the aunt's daughter as a kind of a tribute. A bit of intrigue is added to the situation because "Lily's" is not in the phone book, and the business listing that is in the phone book misspells the Esparzas' last name, showing the restaurant as "Sparza Salvador."
But once you find it, it's a sweet and charming introduction to Mexican home cooking.