Taco Takeover: Classic street fare breaks out of its shell

Formerly a take-it-or-leave-it option for platos especiales and pick-three platters, nowadays, tacos are not just experiencing a boom, but a renaissance. By elevating the plebian staple, returning it to its street-vendor roots and reimaging it with exciting new twists, chefs across the country have re-energized the Mexican food scene with their singular focus on tacos.

Their tacos bear little resemblance to the hamburger-filled, deep-fried tortilla shells that were a fixture at every Chi-Chi’s and Casa Gallardo during the heyday of Americanized, fast-casual Mexican-food chains. It’s safe to say that Chevys will never feature grasshopper tacos, a staple on the menu at Gringo in the Central West End. The taquería, which opened this spring, imports grasshoppers by the kilo from Mexico, where they are munched like beer nuts in cantinas. “I’ve probably sold tens of thousands of these bugs,” said Steven Caravelli, corporate chef of Gringo and Pi Pizzeria. “It’s a strange business I’m in right now.”

On an average day, Gringo’s kitchen goes through roughly 900 to 1,000 freshly made tortillas. Some fillings are familiar – chicken, shredded pork, even ground beef – and some – octopus, red snapper and, of course, grasshopper – are less so.

Caravelli is an Italian-American who learned about classic Mexican fare in the kitchen of celebrity chef José Andres’ Oyamel, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that focuses on traditional small plates called antojitos. Caravelli watched as Mexican women made mole sauce, pressed tortillas and employed authentic preparations such as rubbing ancho chiles into grass-fed beef that is slow-cooked into tender barbacoa. But to really get him going, ask about the salsas. He ages them 48 hours before serving, allowing spicy flavors to mellow and bring forward a medley of tastes before delivering a punch of heat.

Salsas are likewise a preoccupation of Jason and Adam Tilford, who recently opened Mission Taco Joint in the Delmar Loop. Jason Tilford, Mission’s executive chef, roasts poblano chiles for his signature salsa on a wood-fired grill, achieving an earthy and flavorful smokiness. For contrast, he serves each bowl of his poblano salsa alongside a significantly spicier salsa fashioned from a rotation of chiles like arbols, habaneros and moritas.

“There are so many different kinds of chiles like these that make great sauces but really don’t get utilized too often,” Adam Tilford said. “People tend to stick to basic ones like jalapeños and ancho chiles.”

The Tilfords’ focus on variety carries over to Mission’s taco fillings. “A lot of proteins we use you really don’t see in traditional Mexican restaurants – things like chile-braised duck tacos, pork belly, lobster or soft-shell crab,” Adam Tilford said, all of which are served on house-made corn tortillas. Meats are marinated, then slowly braised or roasted over the wood-fired grill. It’s a demonstration of classic Mexican cooking techniques at a restaurant that keeps an eye on authenticity while pushing the culinary envelope. The Tilfords label their fare “Mexicali street food.” What they’re serving, said Adam Tilford, is the kind of fresh bar food they experienced while living in Southern California. He added that while many casual Mexican restaurants are just places to get food, Mission, fueled with craft cocktails and specialty beers to complement the a la carte tacos, has a fun, late-night vibe.

Creating an alcohol-centric modern cantina was a similar goal for Ami Grimes and Gurpreet Padda when they created Diablitos Cantina, located in Midtown. When refining their shrimp tacos and tacos al pastor, Padda and Grimes relied on the notes and recipes they collected during culinary scouting missions to Mexico City and small towns on the east coast of Mexico. “What we wanted more than anything was to have authenticity and freshness,” Padda said. Many of their ingredients come from Foundation Farms in Belleville, Ill. As added enticement, they stocked their tequila bar with about 150 brands, many limited-batch and barrel-aged. Some of those, Padda said, have flavors as complex and delicious as a good Scotch.

Home-style comfort food crafted with an artisan’s flair is the standard at Taste in the Central West End, where some of the city’s finest cocktails can be paired with some serious tacos. Moroccan-style braised lamb neck, pork shoulder al pastor and mole-braised chicken leg are among the rotating fillings wrapped in fresh, hand-pressed corn tortillas. The crowd favorite is barbacoa. While not exactly traditional (The meat sits atop little masa cakes rather than inside a tortilla.), executive chef Matt Daughaday’s barbacoa pays homage to the tacos he enjoyed while living in San Francisco and frequenting taquerías and Mexican food trucks. The toppings – braised beef cheek, pickled red onions, queso fresco and roasted tomatillo salsa – build authentic flavor, evoking memories of traditional Mexican street fare.

Americans also are showing a growing appreciation for fusion tacos, especially Korean barbecue-style. David Choi, co-owner of Seoul Taco, put his food truck on the streets of St. Louis in the summer of 2011, filling tortillas with the intense flavors of Korean barbecue. Choi was certain that his food, though unfamiliar, would quickly take root. Today his food truck is booked with private lunches and catered events, and last fall he opened a brick-and-mortar location in the Delmar Loop, where patrons line up out the door in their quest for spicy pork, bulgogi steak, chicken and tofu stuffed in corn tortillas and accompanied by pungent side orders of kimchee.

The Korean taco trend has radiated westward to Chesterfield, where Sean Moon, the owner of Kim Cheese, is finding success turning out Korean barbecue tacos and other fusion fare. His chicken tacos are made with moist chicken thigh meat, while cuts of tender, flavorful rib-eye fill the steak tacos. Those meats soak in a rich marinade for more than 24 hours to let the flavors infuse, while Asian pears give the sauce a subtle sweetness. He credits his attention to detail and adherence to traditional Korean cooking methods with converting his patrons’ palates to his unusual food.

Authenticity is not without its challenges. It’s a rare day, Caravelli said, that he doesn’t hear a complaint about Gringo’s use of corn tortillas. The same goes for some of the less familiar ingredients. But Caravelli, like his colleagues in St. Louis’ new taco restaurants, continues to win fans.

“We’re doing something unique and interesting, but not so far gone that somebody doesn’t understand it,” Caravelli said. “We don’t want this to be the thing that you have to be a foodie to enjoy.”