Review: Taco Circus in St. Louis
In their quest to bring Tex-Mex to St. Louis, owners Mikey Carrasco and Christian Ethridge have a larger ambition: to prove that fast food and quality ingredients can happily coexist.
The Circus in Town
Vintage circus posters and produce crate labels give Taco Circus a quirky, casual ambience. Unfortunately, other details convey slapdash, like the boxes of drinks shoved under the counter or the menu tacked up askew with masking tape. The L-shaped restaurant only seats 14 inside (with a couple picnic tables on the sidewalk) and can feel cramped before it’s at capacity. But the counter service is exemplary: quick, upbeat, gracious and accommodating toward indecisive diners. Breakfast tacos are served until 11 a.m., when Taco Circus shifts into lunch mode.
Best Circus Performer
The Tour de Taco, a sampler of four of the six offered tacos, is a great choice for a first visit. Tacos come with the option of lettuce and tomato or cilantro and onion (or all four for an extra charge). Go for the fresh, bright flavor of cilantro, which brings out the best of the other ingredients without overpowering them. The veggie taco options – rice and avocado or pinto beans and shredded cheddar cheese – evidence the Taco Circus claim that fresh ingredients simply prepared win the day. For my carnivorous companions and myself, the standouts were the succulent beef fajita taco (over the ground beef option) and chicken taco, which is seasoned to perfection and slightly blackened. The beef is ethically farmed from Rain Crow Ranch. The chicken is hormone-free, though Taco Circus is still looking for a local source reasonably priced for its business model. The pork steak (sourced from Root & Holler) was impressive, but a little too subtle against the bland backdrop of lettuce and tomato.
Of the three tortilla styles available, the soft flour complements Taco Circus’ fresh flavors better than the soft corn or crispy corn tortillas. Some will gripe about the tacos’ small size (4 inches), but this is street food and the price is nothing to quibble over.
Taco Circus’ build-your-own burritos are also excellent: generously portioned and impossible to eat elegantly, just as they should be. Since burritos involve a bigger commitment, but essentially use the same fillings, order a variety of tacos on your first visit and create your dream burrito on the next.
Taco Circus’ chips were freshly cooked and not too oily with a satisfying crunch. I thought they weren’t quite salty enough to be addictive, but to my chip-ordering companions, they hit the spot. The salsa and guacamole, both made in-house, were also perfectly decent, but neither was distinctive enough to be the signature flourish I look for at Tex-Mex places. Among the homemade red and green hot sauces, marked from mild to “stupid hot,” look for the popular oil-based jalapeno coulis. Avoid the chili. Basically ground beef swimming in a metallic-tasting tomato base, it was the lowlight of the whole menu.
South-of-the-border Soda Pop
For those with a sweet tooth, it’s worth trying the Mexican soda Jarritos. Made with real cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, Jarritos comes in various flavors, including slightly exotic pineapple and mango. Mexican Coke is also available.
The Final Act
Tres leches cake is the only dessert offered. It wowed me on the first visit, but two weeks later tasted wildly different. The inferior version had far less lemon zest and, more crucially, less leche. Stinginess with the cream robbed the cake of the moisture and richness that had made it so appealing.
Although Taco Circus has room for improvement, it successfully blends some of the thoughtfulness and ethical concerns of the Slow Food movement with the instant gratification of the fast-food experience. And that is something muy especial.