Posted On: 03/01/2012
Diablitos Cantina, 3761 Laclede Ave., St. Louis, 314.644.4430, diablitoscantina.com
Take a long, deep sip of a Pancho’s Pistol at Diablitos Cantina and you might find yourself back at that gritty side street in downtown Cancun after getting tossed from a nightclub. While eastern Missouri is hardly the Yucatán, Diablitos is a superior stand-in.
With a central location and a built-in client base (The building is practically attached to SLU’s campus.), it’s surprising to think that any business peddling alcohol would have trouble covering overhead. Regardless, 3761 Laclede Ave., is one of those spaces seemingly doomed to fail. Prior to now, the spot played host to a Pasta House, and later, Iggy’s Mexican Cantina – the latter a sad excuse for a Mexican bar. This being the case, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I heard that another “cantina” was taking up the standard at this address. Turns out, things have changed for the better.
Immediately upon entrance it’s clear that, this time around, somebody stepped in who knew what he was doing. The “he” is actually In Good Company, the folks who developed Café Ventana and Sancturia, both standout venues. In Diablitos, the group looks to cash in on the concept of “Mexican street vendor-themed cantina,” awash with a variety of house-infused tequilas.
Cleared away is any memory of Iggy’s: The tacky, Tex-Mex décor has been replaced with fine woodwork, hand-painted portraits, star pendant lights, wall-mounted candles and other delicate touches, all of which emit a dark, brooding 19th-century border-town cantina atmosphere. With spring in bloom, Diablitos will have one of the best drinking patios in the area.
The size of the tequila selection is daunting. (More than 100 brands are kept in stock.) Not a fan of sippin’ it straight? The $6 house-infused tequila cocktail menu touts a few winners, i.e. that Pancho’s Pistol – a mix of mango-infused tequila, orange juice and grenadine. Less thrilling was the Dhamer Morado, a disappointing margarita concocted with hibiscus tequila, schnapps, Blue Curacao, lime juice and finally (why this is becoming necessary in bars now, I do not know) Sierra Mist. A house margarita (thankfully minus the Sierra) was more satisfying but hardly worthy of the “best margarita in Missouri” moniker the menu boasted. Add another shot of tequila, and then we can talk. This is an area – a pretty basic one – where the bartenders will hopefully make some strides in as they get their feet wet. One area that doesn’t need ramping up: the cerveza selection, which is right where it needs to be in terms of price ($3 to $5 range) and options (a plethora of Especials, Pacificos, XXs, along with a number of Cathedral Square brews). The still-new wait staff is attentive but somewhat ill-informed regarding certain specifics on the menu, yet the bar is ably manned, even during the busiest of times.
Diablitos has done well to throw in a $2 Stag and 16-ounce PBR special on Fridays and Saturdays. (Those hapless undergrads thank you.) Fortunately, by 10 o’clock on weekend nights, the college crowd has completed its pregame drinking and skedaddled down Laclede, leaving a tamer crew who likes to relax and savor its infused spirits. Expect to see a diverse mix: preppie couples on date night, blue-collar Tecate-drinkers, sharp-dressed singles, random retirement-aged folks and crews of 20-something girls, decked out in their weekend best, sharing tall pitchers and giggling over long tables.
The food menu touts several standout items, such as the Huarache: a Mexican pizza laced with refried beans, pico, chiles, lettuce, white cheese, a light cream and a choice of meat. Also commendable are the Baja fish tacos – lightly crusted tilapia, served with a spicy dollop of jalapeńo tartar.
Will Diablitos break the Laclede curse? Only time will tell. All of the elements are there – good concept, thoughtful tequila list, worthy nibbles. But until the bar gets its act together (and can at the very least shake up a great margarita), I suggest ordering your Cuervo or Patron straight up.
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