By Eva Pearlstone
Welcome to St. Louis! For those of you who don’t call this city home, you probably know St. Louis as the home of the Arch, the Cardinals, and the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t get to go downtown very often. It is an unfortunate fact that the county of St. Louis and the city are practically segregated from each other. The county folk will venture to the city on occasion to see the zoo, the Science Center, or a Cardinals game, but mostly they stay away. It’s a real shame, too, because most of the culture, and the food, that makes St. Louis so great is downtown.
After starting a new job in Illinois, I knew I needed to move closer to work. In relatively short order, I settled on an apartment in Soulard, an area known for its bars and for the Soulard Farmer’s Market, which has been operating since the 1840’s. After a life in the suburbs, I was excited to live somewhere interesting, and to get away from the malls and the usual dining options. Living here almost 3 months has revealed a treasure trove of small, unique, and excellent restaurants that cater to every taste and budget. Acting on a friend’s recommendation, I checked out some of the Mexican restaurants in the area first. Something about the warmer weather makes me crave margaritas, tacos, and outdoor seating. I want to highlight my two favorites thus far, one of which is better for lunch and the other for dinner.
Lunch: La Vallesana
Located at the intersection of Cherokee and California streets, La Vallesana is in a predominantly Hispanic area of town. I say this is a lunch place for two reasons: they don’t serve alcohol, and I know that this is not the best area at night. The boyfriend and I chose to sit on the patio (which is covered) since it was warm and sunny, and the inside of the restaurant appeared pretty dark and empty. The patio was the popular choice this particular day, and we were lucky enough to get the last available table. First, drinks. I ordered a horchata, which I had read was the best in the city prior to coming here. I was not disappointed. Not only is it delicious and authentic, the serving size is way more generous than I was expecting. I was glad I chose the medium (they only come in medium and large). It was at least 20 ounces, and the cost was the same as a regular soft drink. The creaminess paired well with the spicy food, but I almost couldn’t finish it. My man ordered a Coke, which turned out to be Mexican Coke – a pleasant surprise as it is pretty difficult to find in St. Louis. La Vallesana also offers a number of different agua frescas, which I definitely plan to try on my next visit.
The menu at La Vallesana features tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and tortas, all of which can be prepared with a variety of meats that range from the safe choices (carne asada, carnitas) to a little more adventurous. I didn’t have the courage to try the lengua (tongue) or the cabeza (cow head). Perhaps next time. We settled on three of the tacos, each with a different meat, and a chorizo torta. The torta was a large sandwich featuring my meat of choice with lettuce, pico de gallo, cilantro, cheese, guacamole and mayonnaise on a soft Mexican roll that was toasted to a delightful crispiness. It was messy, but the remnants of chorizo and pico de gallo were easily scooped up by the obligatory complimentary tortilla chips. As for the tacos, it was all about the authenticity – two corn tortillas, meat, onions, and cilantro. Red and green sauces are served alongside. We sampled three different selections: carne asada, carnitas, and carne adobada. My favorite of these was the adobada, which was smoky and slightly spicy. The carne asada lacked flavor, but the red and green sauces helped with that. I’m not normally a corn tortilla kind of girl, but these were super soft and had a milder flavor than most other corn tortillas I’ve had. All meats were tender and well-cooked, and the meat to tortilla ratio was enough to fill us up even though the tortillas themselves were small.
We didn’t have room for dessert, but the menu features a wide selection of paletas (popsicles) and ice creams with traditional flavors like spicy mango, guava, and coconut. Just another reason to return soon.
The first time I went to Chava’s, it was a Saturday night. Now might be an opportune time to explain the Soulard food and drink scene. This neighborhood comes alive on the weekends. All the cute little bars and restaurants become loud, fun, and full to the brim with people. Chava’s is no exception. Once we made it through the door, it was standing room only for a good 20 minutes before we were finally able to get seats at the bar. This place is not for the claustrophobic. As for the drinks, you are missing out if you don’t order at least one margarita here. They are large (16 oz) and come in a wide variety of fruit flavors, most of which are blended from real fruit. I had one traditional lime on the rocks, and one blended strawberry margarita. The strawberry was a little too sugary for my taste, but if you are into fruity, girly drinks, go for it.
Food-wise, this place is definitely Tex-Mex. As soon as you sit down, you are greeted with the complimentary chips and salsa. Their salsa is heavier on the onion (green and white onions are used) than most places, but it is very fresh. The chips are nothing to write home about, but it’s always nice to have some salt to balance out the margaritas. For the main courses, Chava’s does not skimp on portions. Their build-it-yourself burritos are huge, as are their salads. However, I’ve found on my visits there that you cannot go wrong with anything deep fried. The beef tacos are simple – ground beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, and what looked to be Parmesan cheese straight from the shaker (the menu does not specify the type of cheese) – but it is the fried flour tortilla shell that really sets them apart. After a couple margaritas, those tacos are exactly what you want. That is, if you can eat more than one – they are very filling. Another unique menu item is called El Mireko. It consists of two deep fried chicken burritos covered in queso and topped with guacamole. Not traditional by any means, but delicious nonetheless. The entrees come with sides of rice and beans, which are both fairly bland, but the main dishes make up for it.
So, there you have it: an introduction to Mexican food in St. Louis. Both very reasonably priced, both great for casual summer dining. These are the kind of restaurants I enjoy: family-owned, small operations serving great food. They’re not trendy, but definitely popular among the people in the community. If dressing up and drinking wine is more your speed, I’ll be reviewing one of the area’s best restaurants in a couple weeks. And of course, since the creator of the blog requested it, I’ll have Ted Drewes for you all as well. Make sure to check it out.