Hot in the City: Check out the Latino eats on Cherokee Street

If it’s this hot out, you might as well be somewhere more exotic, right? Perhaps south of the border sampling spicy salsa cruda and washing it down with a chilled bottle of Dos Equis? You don’t need an expensive plane ticket to taste el sabor latino. Five blocks of eateries, grocery stores and bakeries along Cherokee Street offer a fair share of breakfast sweets, snacky tacos, lunchtime tortas, and main dish specialties like seafood soup and roasted meats with stomach-stuffing rice, beans and tortillas. Whether you want to taste eye-watering chiles rellenos then put out the fire with agua fresca or shop for foodstuffs to prepare at home, South City’s Latino strip is hot, hot, hot with authentic cuisine from our southern neighbors. Let’s start near Jefferson Avenue and head west. ¡Vámonos!

El Chico Bakery
2634 Cherokee St. · 314.664.2212 · Mon. to Sat. – 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Sun. – 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Closed Tue.

Of course you could just pick up a few loaves of freshly baked telera, the classic Mexican bread used to make torta sandwiches, but why not turn your visit to the panadería into an event? El Chico offers shelf-loads of pan dulce (sweet bread), conchas (puffy, shell-like sweet rolls), panquesitos (muffins) and orejas (flaky pastries twisted into the shape of an ear), just to name a few. Try one of the newest products, a cherry-filled empanada, and enjoy it with a cup of coffee as you relax in the bakery’s dining area.

Garduños Mexican Food
2737 Cherokee St. · 314.776.2315 · Daily – 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

This casual eatery with a cantina-like atmosphere offers customers a fiesta of flavors that hail from Mexico and the southwest U.S. Order the caldo siete mares, a seafood soup filled with oysters, clams, crab legs, octopus, crabmeat, shrimp and catfish atop a bed of rice. The cocktail camarón, shrimp served with pico de gallo and avocado, is another crowd-pleaser. Will you have it with one of 10 varieties of Mexican beer or make merry with a pitcher of margaritas? Popular selections from the house specialty menu are Garduños Fajitas and the carne asada, a roasted beef dish served with beans and rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, lettuce and flour tortillas. If you still have room for dessert, try the fried ice cream topped with the restaurant’s special sauce, drizzled with chocolate syrup, a dollop of whipped cream and a cherry, served in a baked mini-tortilla shell. ¡Delicioso!

El Torito
2743 Cherokee St. · 314.771.8648 · Daily – 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Explore the vast selection of fresh produce, meat, cheeses, bulk and canned goods in this roughly 15,000-square-foot Latin American grocery store. You’ll recognize brands like San Marcos, Doña María, La Preferida, Goya and La Costeña. El Torito boasts numerous varieties of cheeses including queso fresco, mexicana, enchilado, cotija and rayado. Munch on a bag of chicharrones (puffy, fried pork rinds) from the deli as you stock up on Latin pantry staples – dried chile peppers, beans and stacks of flour and corn tortillas.

Stop at the fruit stand on your way out and order a cóctel de fruta, a rainbow of fresh-cut watermelon, jicama, pineapple, mango, orange and cucumber topped with a shake of ground chile pepper, a dash of hot sauce, and a squeeze of lemon and lime served in a plastic cup or paper bowl to go. Next, take two steps to the left and ask the elote vendor for a fresh stick of roasted corn on the cob. Now that you’re armed with Mexican street food, ¡Vamos!

Taquería El Torito
2753 Cherokee St. · 314.771.8648 · Fri. to Wed. – 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Closed Thu.

Sharing space with the mega supermarket El Torito, the taquería offers traditional Mexican fare for weary grocery shoppers. Sit down at one of the many tables and enjoy the mojarra frita, a standout tilapia dish. Buckets of cool, homemade agua fresca sit ready to quench your summer thirst; the agua de tamarindo made from tamarind pods is a great change of pace for fans of slightly sweetened iced tea.

Carnicería Latino Americana
2800 Cherokee St. · 314.773.1707
Mon. to Fri. – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sat. and Sun. – 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Behind the counter of this butcher shop, you’ll find an extensive meat selection for preparing all your favorite carnivorous Central and South American dishes. Highlights: cow’s feet, pig’s feet, two varieties of tripe, liver, tongue, pork loin, chorizo, cecina (beef marinated in lemon and bitter orange) and carne adobada (pork marinated in red chile sauce).

This small tienda is also stocked with fresh produce – from prickly pears to foot-long medicinal aloe vera leaves as well as bottled and canned ethnic products like mole pipián, a pumpkin seed purée that goes well on chicken, eggs, tamales, enchiladas and other Mexican dishes. There are also nopales (cactus pads) every which way: fresh (whole or diced) or brined.

La Vallesana
2801 Cherokee St. · 314.776.4223 · Daily – 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The tiny La Vallesana sits at the corner of Cherokee and California in the heart of Cherokee Street’s Latino district. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to central Mexico as you dine al fresco under the shade of a patio umbrella and bite into a Mexican torta sandwich of meat, cilantro, onion, pico de gallo, lettuce, mozzarella, Cheddar, guacamole and mayo. Locals love the torta al pastor of smoky-flavored seasoned pork leg with pineapple and the torta milanesa (thinly pounded steak that’s breaded and fried). La Vallesana offers many beat-the-heat beverages. Any of the aguas frescas are refreshing; if you’ve never had rompope, a light, Mexican-style eggnog served on ice, here’s your chance.

Taquería El Bronco
2812 Cherokee St. · 314.762.0691 · Mon. to Thu. – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fri. to Sun. – 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Occasionally closed on Mon.)

This cozy taco joint offers a wide variety of appetizers – nachos, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas – as well as filling “El Bronco-style” platters of marinated pork, chicken in a mild red chile sauce, and steak or tongue, served with rice, beans and tortillas. The restaurant may well be the only place in town with alambre on the menu. The Mexican-style shish kabob is stacked with grilled cubed beef, onions and bell pepper served with mozzarella and sour cream and the quintessential threesome of rice, beans and tortillas. If you come in the morning, order huevos mexicanos off the menu and experience an authentic Mexican breakfast of scrambled eggs with zesty chiles and onions served with, you guessed it, rice, beans and tortillas.

Los Arcos del Caporal
2817 Cherokee St. · 314.772.3707 · Daily – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The unadorned snack bar/check casher/money-wiring service/travel agency opened its doors in June. Los Arcos offers an abbreviated menu of antojitos (tacos, tortas, burritos and other snacks) as well as refreshing licuados de fruta (fruit smoothies). The agua de jamaica, a healthy tonic made from hibiscus flower, is a winning agua fresca.

La Vallesana 2
2818 Cherokee St. · 314.776.4223 · Daily – 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Formerly part of the original La Vallesana, the ice cream shop moved to its new location across the street last year. The popular nevería offers more than 18 flavors of homemade Michoacán ice cream (try the mamé, it tastes like sweet potato) and a huge selection of tropical-flavored paletas, or popsicles. Among the more exotic are: nanche (a small, round yellow fruit), tamarind with chile, guava, pine nut and coconut. Mmm. ¡Qué sabroso!

Hilario Vargas, owner of La Vallesana and La Vallesana 2, opens the ice cream shop’s kitchen in November to serve tortas, tacos and other items from La Vallesana’s menu for customers who prefer sit-down dining over squeezing into counter space inside the sister eatery across the street.

Diana’s Bakery
2843 Cherokee St. · 314.771.6959 · Mon. to
Sat. – 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun. – 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Need a sugar fix? Diana’s selection of Mexican baked goods is sure to please. You’ll find conos (cone-shaped pastries filled with vanilla cream and crowned with a cherry), churros (fluted fritters sprinkled with sugar) and piernas (long, rectangular stuffed pastries) with pineapple, strawberry or vanilla. Kids will delight in choosing among the massive cookies; will it be mini-chocolate chip, raisin, or the sweet biscuit shaped like a watermelon and dyed with food coloring to match? The panadería also has a variety of empanadas, homemade flan and a luscious pastel de tres leches (a butter cake soaked in three kinds of milk) with a layer of fruit.

Tower Tacos
3147 Cherokee St. · 314.256.1141 · Mon. to
Fri. – 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sat. and Sun. – 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Tower Tacos, located a few blocks west of the main Latino strip, opened in June. The restaurant caters to the local Hispanic community’s penchant for spice as well as those accustomed to Americanized fare. Example: There are two versions of chiles rellenos on the menu (pick the poblano if you dare). Tacos and tortas are tops among Latinos, while Northerners give a nod to the Burrito California and Quesadilla Azteca. The restaurant makes its own corn tortillas, tamales and flan. Its horchata, a milky-looking drink made from ground rice and sugar, is perfectly spiced with cinnamon.