chilanguita mexican kitchen photo by mabel suen

Chilanguita Mexican Kitchen serves great food and drinks in Lindenwood Park

Why reach for a top-shelf margarita when the "house" at Chilanguita Mexican Kitchen at 6997 Chippewa St. smacks? Granted, some of the fancy ones come — fetchingly — with little flags in their limes; others, rosy in fish bowls, have copper-colored salt around their rims. But one sip of the plain old house (its punch, its high-test, gasoliney fume) and Chippewa in St. Louis on a Tuesday night slides — nice and easy — right out of the frame.

When we went, an ice-wind was whisking off the River des Peres. As we pulled into a spot out front, we weren't entirely sure of our destination's curb appeal. La Chilanguita is humble-looking, no airs. But we were sad and cold, in need of something to warm us; there was a cozy glow in the windows, festive music tinkling out. Sold. "I think we're good," I said. By which time, I was wrestling with my seatbelt, yanking open my door and pole-vaulting into the vestibule to find jolly Mexican music on the stereo, and diners posing with their platters for photos taken by smiley waitstaff. This is a party, and even though you weren't technically invited, everyone seems perfectly glad you came.

Chilanguita Mexican Kitchen opened early last summer in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood in the space once occupied by River's Edge Social and Afandi Sweets & Cafe. It's the debut restaurant from longtime local industry veteran Oscar Elias, who teamed up to open the place with Marco Belmont and Jose Vladimir Ramirez, all of whom have roots in Mexico City. And, based on the mood and decor here, it's where their hearts are. You feel the tug of "home" in the memorabilia — masks and other artifacts from places including Oaxaca and Tulum — and in the strikingly large prints with Dia de los Muertos themes. And you can't fail to be dazzled by the profusion of (fabric) flowers. They sprout thickly from walls and around doorways and fairly whoop "carnival!" For a time, Elias and Belmont worked together at El Burro Loco in the Central West End, and its colorful vibe is very much in evidence here.


assorted dishes from chilanguita mexican kitchen // photo by mabel suen


If guacamole happens to be an early indicator of quality, this one — given a pinch more salt — has good news to tell. It's bright, nicely chunked and delicately peppered. The chips hold up well. Not too fragile, not too thick.

Street tacos also are a good litmus test. And the twosome on the combo plato, pinched by little bamboo skewers, certainly pass — though beware the oil down your frock. Yes, the pork al pastor (spit-roasted pork shoulder) in particular was a little greasy. But is it naughty to say, deliciously so? In any event, it's a trade-off — the meat's deep yet gentle heat, the chew of the extremely fresh corn tortilla, make this an unctuous snack. The chorizo version inches in the other direction. It's drier, but ruddy with pimentón and smoky with paprika, it nonetheless has a pleasing bounce.

Oddly, the shrimp taco seemed more mayonnaisy than sour-cream-y, and could have been zestier squeezed more liberally with lime. The shrimps were a little ... shrimpy, but were aided by squiggles of pickled onion, jewels of cubed mango and a smattering of bright cilantro.

Birria pizza is a thing these days, and we jigged to find it here. It's the size of a 45-pound weight, but thankfully, much lighter. Both the cheese and thin St. Louis-style crust take a backseat to gorgeous tufts of slow-cooked, tender beef. It arrives with a delicate consommé for dipping.

Or — because you can't have too much of that good thing — go whole hog and have the birria platter. Simmered long and slow in an adobo of vinegar, dried chiles, herbs and spices (cumin, thyme, etc.), this beef's warm, saucy succulence feels like just the thing for a winter night. Birria also makes an appearance in a ramen soup.

The chile relleno might need a tweak. This dish isn't known for its beauty, but this one's a saggy slipper. It crowded out its more delicate companions on a sample plate, and the egg batter had the whiff of funnel cake. But on the inside — and making up for its blousy appearance — was a glossy, ink-green chile, silky rich and oozy with cheese.

And don't disregard the refried beans. Oft overlooked, the ones from Chilanguita's kitchen have depth of flavor and are comfortingly creamed.

Speaking of funnel cake: Is there incongruity to the blue-flashing, fairground claw machine in the corner (the kind that ratchets down to grab — though rarely captures — some garish, boggle-eyed toy)? No, not really. This one's filled with candy and what may have been indoor party poppers. It only adds to the mood: fun for all ages. Fun for all tastes.

The other half of this space is a bar. Needless to say, it is equally convivial, maybe even more so. Choose from 15 margaritas (or try them all?). Prickly pear's on the list, as is jalapeño and pomegranate. Have a "monster." Have a "jumbo." Or stick a straw in a pitcher, why not? It's cozy in here, dimly lit, pinky with neon signs. "Feed me tacos and tell me I'm pretty," is the charmingly blithe kind of thing they say.

If we're not back for the food (which we will be) and the prickly pear margarita (which we will be), we'll return when the weather is warm and the light is going down. We'll ask for a seat on the patio because that's where things get a little magical — where 30 or more fairy-lit, hand-held rain umbrellas string across the night. It's a sweet (Mexico City) idea — whimsical and joyous. There's no rain on this parade.

Chilanguita Mexican Kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

This article was originally published by the Riverfront Times