I was already working on this review of Taqueria Durango when a regular reader passed along some news: This Overland restaurant occasionally serves a torta ahogada.
Ahogada means "drowned," and a torta ahogada is a sandwich covered in red-chile sauce. I'd eaten it for the first time two years ago at Taqueria los Tarascos in Woodson Terrace, but when I returned there last month it was off the menu. I hadn't seen it on the menu at Durango. Once I knew to look for it, though, I found it written on a small dry-erase board by the cash register.
Here the torta brings carnitas and grilled onions on the traditional oblong bolillo roll coated with red-chile sauce. The sauce is smoky and, to my capsaicin-craving palate, medium hot. I knew even before I ordered the torta that I'd like the sauce — along with a piquant salsa verde, it's served with your complimentary tortilla chips — but the carnitas were equally impressive: luscious with fat without seeming greasy, and quite flavorful. The onions added bite and a touch of sweetness, making for, on the whole, a terrific fork-and-knife sandwich.
When I say Durango is a hidden gem, that's no mere cliché. Of course, the secret is out that, over the past few years, towns south of the airport have become home to many of the area's best authentic Mexican restaurants, but Durango occupies one end of a small strip mall that is set back from Page Avenue in such a way that you can hardly see it from the road. Those of you with GPS devices will have no trouble finding it, I suppose, but for the rest of us, having to double back to find it is an added bonus: It makes you even hungrier.
Inside, the vibe falls somewhere between humble taqueria and full-scale Mexican restaurant. The interior is plain but not unpleasant, brightly lighted, with seating for three dozen or so and flat-screen TV sets on opposite walls showing, on my visits, American soap operas. The staff is very friendly but small in number, so patience is required during the lunch rush. Order a Mexican Coca-Cola (served in a glass bottle, made with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup and somehow fizzier, it's better in every way than its domestic counterpart), nibble on your chips and salsa and peruse the menu. With time, you'll find something unexpected among the usual dishes.
In my case, that was one of the meats available for tacos: buche. This translates as "crop" — as in gizzard. To put it plainly, buche is fried pig's esophagus. Though a fan of the pig in its many glorious forms, I'd never felt any desire to eat its throat. So it was time to put my money where my nose-to-tail-eating mouth is.
I think it's fair to say, now, that buche is unremarkable as a taco filling. It looks like a tendril of meat attached to a particularly thick piece of fat, but it's not fatty. It is fried pig, so the flavor has all that working for it, and it did strike me as earthier than, say, carnitas. But not especially so. Worth trying, for sure, but not a revelation.
The other taco meats run the gamut from carne asada to tongue to tripe. Regular readers know I like few things better than tacos al pastor, and here they are very good, the pork's achiote-based marinade sharply flavored. Even better are the barbacoa tacos, the best I've had locally. The slowly cooked, shredded beef was incredibly tender and dripping (literally) with rich, roasty-sweet flavor. Almost as good are the cabeza tacos, full-flavored, somewhat fatty meat from the cheeks and head of the cow.
Durango serves its tacos in the traditional taqueria manner: the meat folded into two corn tortillas and topped with cilantro and diced onion. But the restaurant offers gringo-friendly "crispy" taco shells as an option, and the menu contains other elements that might appeal to those who normally shy away from real-deal Mexican cuisine. Burritos, for example, are sized to put Chipotle and Qdoba to shame: eight to ten inches long and plump with meat, rice, lettuce, tomato, refried beans and cheese. I ordered mine with carne asada and was pleased to find the meat, served chopped into bite-size pieces, tender as well as flavorful (the cut used is often tasty but tough).
Enchiladas are available stuffed with chicken or cheese and dressed with red or green salsa. I opted for chicken enchiladas and green sauce and was served four enchiladas plus generous servings of rice and refried beans. The enchiladas were solid: The chicken was tender, though ever so slightly under seasoned. The green sauce didn't seem quite as potent as the salsa verde that came with the tortilla chips, but it certainly helped punch up the poultry's flavor.
Again, the arrangement is familiar from more mainstream Mexican restaurants: enchilada, rice, beans. But I was impressed that the latter two items were more than perfunctory. Both were piping hot — too often, side dishes are obviously served from pans that have been sitting under a heat lamp for God knows how long — the rice was nicely seasoned, and the beans were thick and flavorful and not, as so often happens, weirdly congealed.
The single disappointment of a dish was the torta milanesa. The sandwich was fine in and of itself, the steak pounded thinner than a pancake and topped with lettuce, tomato, avocado and mayo, with jalapeños served on the side. In my experience, a good torta overwhelms you with the sheer quantity of toppings; the meat is almost beside the point. Here the toppings were merely polite.
Really, though, it's a positive step that St. Louis has reached a critical mass of taquerias that we can discuss the finer points of torta construction rather than celebrate their mere existence. Besides, with a torta ahogada on its menu, Durango has already given us enough of a reason to celebrate.