Friday, June 22, 2012

Tacos under the Arch: A Hispanic community in St. Louis

When most of us think of St. Louis we use think of Cardinals baseball, the Arch and toasted ravioli. But did you ever think of St. Louis as being the home to a thriving Hispanic food scene? Talk a walk down Cherokee Street in downtown St. Louis and you'll see 'Cherokee Row', a district of thrift and antique shops, Anheuser Busch brewery and dozens of eclectic indie shops.

But walk a little further down Cherokee and you'll begin to see it. Wonderful pastel colored signs and painted images of women preparing tortillas amidst colored jars of green and red salsa. The smell of grilled meats sauteed with citrus juices permeates the air as smoke rises from behind little Mexican cafes. Welcome to little Mexico in the heart of the gateway to the West. 

Cherokee street is home to a bustling community of markets, shops and cafes. One of our first stops on Cherokee is Diana's Bakery. Diana's is a traditional Mexican bakery that serves homemade breads, cookies and assorted desserts. Diana's is so highly acclaimed that it was awarded St. Louis' newspaper 'The Riverfront Times 'St. Louis Best Bakery Award' in 2010.

Diana's serves many traditional Mexican cookies called 'galletas'. Colorful sugar cookies covered in sugar and cinnamon.  As we walk in a sign catches my eye 'Cream Cheese Empanadas'....Tasty golden flaky pastries filled with sweet buttery cream cheese. They will hurt you...

Across the counter a group of elderly women are working on a tray of cinnamon covered churros. Stocked shelves adorned with cakes, pies and tarts fill the room. Diana's is a dessert lover's palace.

But perhaps before you indulge in sweets you would like to scoop up some lunch? There are a number of cafes and restaurants throughout the district that serve fantastic traditional Mexican faire.  Open air cafes selling freshly fried pork rinds called 'chicharones'. Thirsty? Try a glass of 'horchata', a sweet concoction made of rice, almonds, cinnamon and vanilla.  And there's then there's the classics..deep stuffed pork tacos, grilled arrachera (skirt steak) and steaming bowls of menudo.

We decide on eating at Taqueria El Torito. El Torito is part grocery and part restaurant. As we enter the grocery, a man is covering fresh roasted corn with  Mexican sour cream, lime juice and chili pepper. A little old lady presses fresh homemade corn tortillas at a small table.

As you make your way into the restaurant you can't help but notice the tall stretching architecture covered in murals of Aztec daily life. A large Hispanic family laughs and enjoys piles of food at a table next to us. I order Tacos Al Pastor, Tacos Lengua and Carnitas. The waitress brings us a woven basket filled with warm flour tortillas. Puffed pastry like tortillas with little brown dark spots where they have almost burned. So good.

The waitress brings our dishes to the table in a display that could only be called 'epic'.
I make my friend MaryJo try a tongue taco before I tell her what is in it. "It's good isn't it? It's like really good roast." She smiles and lifts the taco to her mouth, chomping away. "Know what it is?" I ask. She stops. " What? What is it? Oh boy..." I tell her that it's tongue. She makes a face and continues eating.

The waitress brings us several different bowls of salsas. There is a brown soupy salsa made with poblano peppers. Smoky and spicy. One is green made with tomatillos and jalapenos. Citrusy and spicy with a little bit of lime juice. As the table begins to crowd, she places bowls of chopped onions, limes and cilantro amidst the heap of food.

We round our trip of Cherokee street with a tour of some of the many markets. Fresh spices, cooking utensils, clothing and various foods all from Mexico. If your looking for something really different to do in St. Louis, check out the Mexican food community on Cherokee.

1 comment:

  1. Dang it Tony, now my mouths watering. Let me know next time when you're going.