Taco Quest: A journey through some of St. Louis' best taquerias and Tex-Mex restaurants
Working guys stopping in to grab lunch from King Burrito. Masked friends hanging out at the bar of Taco Circus. A family laughing over chips and beer at Fonda La Poblanita. A team of cooks enjoying a chill moment, lounging and joking at the flattop inside El Morelia Super Mercado. Some pals losing their minds over the tasting menu at Nixta. These taquerias and restaurants are not only alive and well, but are continuing to act as sanctuaries for good vibes and nourishing cuisine in an otherwise turbulent time for the industry. And at the core of it all is the humble taco.
Building a great taco requires many crucial decisions, like whether you’re going with a corn or flour tortilla, which filling you choose and whether cilantro is in the mix. Sometimes you want to drench your food in hot sauce and salsa; other times, a taco’s powerful base flavors can be more than enough. When there’s meat in the game, where it’s butchered and how it’s cooked is important; if it’s a veggie taco, creativity and novelty are essential ingredients. In short, there are a ton of ways to put together a satisfying taco, and St. Louis’ vast community of great Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants truly offers something for everybody.
La Tejana Taqueria | Chips
If you’re a chips and salsa fanatic – and who isn’t? – you’re familiar with the deep joy of seeing that classic wicker basket heading in your direction. Most chips are at least good, but the chips at La Tejana Taqueria are truly next level, a high artisan achievement with a dish most restaurants take for granted. Hefty-but-airy, still glistening from being freshly fried, served with a smoky salsa, these chips have few peers in town.
Taco Buddha | Hatch green chile queso
This play on queso is a Southwest-inspired gem. I could explain why it’s so good, or I could just tell you that we got one order, finished it, ordered a second one, finished that, and then rounded up a third. This literally happened. The table was a chips and queso graveyard.
Taco Circus | Salsa
Taco Circus usually has seven to 10 salsas available at a time, including a four-salsa flight that rotates based around the seasonality of different peppers and produce. “Sometimes we get in really cool stuff,” said sous chef Cesar Correa, adding that he’s always working on at least one new salsa per week. “We’re constantly tasting and tweaking until we’re happy with it.” From the show-stopping green hot sauce to the house salsa (which is made two to three times a day to ensure consistency) to spicy specials like guajillo-carrot, salsa macha, and even one using Ski soda as a base, it’s safe to say that Taco Circus is taking the salsa game very seriously.
Original J’s Tex-Mex BBQ | Guacamole
The magical guacamole at Clayton Tex-Mex restaurant Original J’s is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. “Our guacamole’s very simple,” said Andrew Enrique Cisneros.* “We make it with all fresh ingredients: tomato, red onion, cilantro, fresh lime juice, salt, and that’s it. We add a little bit of jalapeno.” In his view, it’s balance that takes a guac from good to great, and whether you’re doing it at home or in a professional kitchen, the techniques are the same. “You need the right amount of acidity and the right amount of salt throughout the guacamole,” he divulged. “Salt is very important because a lot of chefs or cooks will underseason the guacamole.” He went on to point out that tasting during preparation is perhaps the most important tool in making his guac consistent; he and his chefs taste obsessively. “We take guacamole too seriously, maybe,” he said, laughing.
*At the time of the interview, Cisneros was Original J’s executive chef; while he still works at the restaurant, he has since vacated that position.
Fonda La Poblanita | Squash blossom taco or machete, al pastor taco
Not really a taco, sort of a quesadilla, the machete is a truly special dish. Basically a massive, oval-shaped tortilla filled with cheese and toothsome squash blossoms, Fonda La Poblanita’s flor de calabaza machete is airy and wonderfully botanical. If you’re passionately in taco mode and ask nicely, they’ll do a squash blossom taco for you – both versions are awesome. Speaking of tacos, Fonda La Poblanita’s al pastor taco starts out with some of the freshest, most delicious corn tortillas we’ve had in town; atop lies succulent pork, sweet from an unusually generous presence of pineapple. It’s a sublime execution of a dish that you can get at nearly any taqueria; but at Fonda La Poblanita, it’s a must.
King Burrito Mexican Cafe | Lengua taco
King Burrito is off the beaten path, but once we tried the lengua taco, we knew it was worth the journey; impossibly tender, juicy and somewhat spicy, the beef tongue was delicious. If you haven’t had a lengua taco, just imagine a most tasty brisket braised in earthy spices and served on a fresh tortilla with cilantro and onions. This one will take you to the big drip zone, so make sure you have a few napkins.
El Mexiquense | Cecina (dried beef) taco
Imagine rolling great beef jerky in a beautiful flour tortilla, smothering it with onions and cilantro, and drizzling some hot sauce on top. If that sounds good, then this Overland spot offers the salty taco of your dreams.
La Tejana Taqueria | Chorizo taco
Seared to gain an umami-level spicy, oily crispiness, the chorizo just dances on its corn tortilla. It’s a match made in heaven. (If we were including entrees, I would have to mention their mole dish, but since we aren’t, I won’t say anything about it.)
Ricos Tacos in El Morelia Super Mercado | Everything
This taco stand set up inside Bridgeton’s El Morelia Super Mercado is mind-blowing. Every taco we tried there was totally incredible, from the superbly cooked carne asada to the tender, smoky, citrus-y lengua. They have a fresh bar with three spectacular salsas, cilantro, lime, radishes and more, so you can set up every bite perfectly. In fact, everything about Ricos Tacos is perfect, including the fact that they only sell tacos on Saturdays and Sundays. The guys behind the counter are friendly and focused, chatting and laughing with customers who are standing around; as a result, going to Ricos Tacos feels like stopping by your friend’s house for a quick bite – if your friend happens to be the best cook in town.
El Guanaco Taqueria & Pupuseria | Camaron taco
Although El Guanaco only opened last year, it became an instant classic and has infiltrated our rotation, especially when we crave pupusas. Their camaron (shrimp) taco is incredible; chopped, charred bits of shrimp mingle with fresh onion and tasty salsa on a durable corn tortilla and bind for a perfect bite that transports us out of the Midwest to a place where fresh shrimp reigns supreme.
Taqueria El Bronco | Al pastor taco, chorizo taco
El Bronco has something for everybody, and all of it is good. The classic choices are the al pastor and the chorizo, both of which come on two rugged corn tortillas and are topped with onions and a ton of fresh cilantro. The al pastor is juicy and spicy-sweet, with bits of pineapple, while the chorizo is salty and seared, roping you in with waves of savory intensity. For more intrepid diners, the velvety cesos (brain) tacos are definitely worth trying.
Salina’s Mexican Restaurant | Fish taco, Tacos De Liera
Hiding in the corner of a small strip mall in Chesterfield lies Salina’s Mexican Restaurant, a quiet neighborhood spot that’s absolutely worth seeking out. The fish taco was tender and crunchy at the same time, its breaded cod smothered in a sea of lettuce and an aggressive slathering of tangy, smoky sauce. It’s precisely the kind of fish taco we crave, and we were happy to drive out for it. We also loved the zesty, tomato-forward house salsa, which we dished onto every bite of our meal, including the set of delicious grilled steak tacos.
Macako Tacos | Shrimp taco
Macako Tacos owner Mario Baeza just wants to master the basics, which means bringing in fresh, high-quality meat and seafood, chargrilling it and serving it with tastefully seasoned sauces, slaws and sides. “We don’t want to cut corners,” he said. “This is food for people who really enjoy good-quality [protein].” Case in point is the shrimp taco, which sees juicy butterflied shrimp smothered in Fuego Slaw – cabbage, apples, spices and minced habanero; it’s a spicy, creamy explosion of fresh flavors that’s just damn good. Baeza is still working to secure a brick-and-mortar location, so in the meantime, place your order online.
Mi Tierra Bonita | Pastor taco, asada taco
Mi Tierra Bonita does it all right, from the exceptional and satisfyingly spicy house salsa and rustic, hearty chips to its vast menu of classic dishes. The juicy pastor taco has minimal pineapple, keeping its delectable pork in the spotlight, and the asada taco maintains a brilliant herby-crispy-succulent balance in every bite.
Taco Circus | Street Kid
The Street Kid is exactly the kind of hearty savior that veg-heads crave after a couple shots of tequila or a margarita. Named for owner Christian Ethridge’s childhood days on the streets of Austin, Texas, looking to bean- and rice-filled tacos to fuel his antics, this one comprises beans, rice, Monterey Jack cheese and pico de gallo. For vegetarians missing meat, adding the mushroom-derived match meat – seasoned with paprika, garlic power, Mexican oregano and other spices – will take it even closer to the forbidden beefy goodness you truly desire.
Mission Taco Joint | Portobello taco
Between the grilled portobello mushrooms, goat cheese, chipotle aioli and crispy onions, Mission Taco Joint’s premier veggie taco is full of engaging textures and pleasing flavors. Its smashed black beans and arugula take it to a creamy, elemental place that will have you ordering another round each time your server walks by.
El Toluco Taqueria | Vegetarian taco
While most taco spots have some kind of grilled veggie taco, El Toluco goes the extra mile by bringing a couple twists into the game. Theirs comes with sauteed cactus and grilled jalapeno and is topped with avocado and onion, making for an uncommon combo that will fully satisfy your palate and make you sweat a bit, especially if you add a little salsa. “The salsa tastes a little different every day, depending on the spiciness of the jalapenos and serranos,” said co-owner Maggie Pizarro. (And since it’s wrong to go to El Toluco and not get a torta, you need to also get a torta.)
Original J’s Tex-Mex BBQ | Vegan chorizo taco
The vegan chorizo taco at Original J’s is an ongoing project. “For the flour tortillas, we use some of the rendered beef fat from the brisket, but for the vegan tortillas, we’re exploring corn flours from around the country,” Cisneros said; currently he’s working with a blue corn flour that he expects to be around for a while. Atop the tortilla sits chorizo-spiced tofu that’s been ground up with toasted pepitas, laced with J’s “magic rub” and smoked low and slow for a few hours. The result is a hearty vegan bite with a huge punch. “It just became a permanent staple for the menu – it was ordered so often,” Cisneros explained.
Nixta | Pescado taco
As one might expect, Nixta’s elegant pescado (fish) taco is beautifully plated and composed, but it’s also a robust dish that packs a serious bite. Its two formidable tortillas hold exceptionally crispy fish, a tower of cabbage and a sincerely delicious chipotle mayo, all of which meld for a major wall of flavor.
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