Menus at local Mexican restaurants tend to fall into one of two categories: They're either predictable collections of tacos, enchiladas and burritos — almost inevitably accompanied by beans and rice and not much else — or they try to push the envelope of what most St. Louis diners consider "Mexican."
Diablitos Cantina doesn't fit easily into either camp. On the one hand, its food is the creation of chef Chris Lee, whose pan-Latin work at Sanctuaria in the Grove has been anything but predictable. On the other hand, the location on the edge of the St. Louis University campus means that many of its customers are likely to be college students and academics, whose budgets and culinary boundaries are often limited.
Lee knows his audience from having operated Café Ventana at another edge of the campus for several years. And while I was slightly disappointed that he didn't let his creativity run wild at the new place, Diablitos offers enough unexpected variety to differentiate itself from the generic chimichanga crowd.
Few Mexican or Tex-Mex places charge for their chips and salsa, and a basic version is complimentary at Diablitos. But for a $2 upcharge, we had access to an unlimited salsa bar whose offerings included fundamental salsas in a range of heats; more exotic ingredients including mango, watermelon and papaya; and even a Mexican version of the pickled vegetables that Italians call giardiniera. The habanero salsa was particularly notable, taming the chile's fieriness with a sweet fruitiness.
Quite unintentionally, we picked two almost perfectly complementary items from the list of 'snacks" that can serve as appetizers, small plates or cheap augmentation of dorm food. Nopal salad ($5), although it contains minced bits of jalapeño, was a mild combination of strips of cactus and slices of avocado whose most notable flavoring is lime. Maize con limón ($3) also used lime as a flavoring, but more as an undertone to the chile fire that flavored a bowl of hominy. Individually, I might have found one dish too bland and the other too bold, but alternating bites of each worked remarkably well.
That word "chimichanga" does not appear on the menu, but an entrée called the Austin ($10) is its Tex-Mexican cousin, if not an unacknowledged half-brother. Two flour tortillas were deep-fried to seal well seasoned chicken, cheese, mild peppers and onions inside, then topped by a creamy cheese sauce and guacamole.
Sweet corn tamales ($8) sounded promising when we chose pineapple braised pork as their filling, and the soft meal that formed the casing did have a tangible sweetness. The pork was properly tender, but the unique acidic flavor of pineapple was almost undiscernable, missing a good opportunity to raise the dish to another level.
Baja fish tacos ($10) had the appropriate combination of chile heat (from a jalapeño-spiked tartar sauce), cabbage and lime. But they floundered slightly, so to speak, from the use of tilapia instead of a heartier fried fish.
Diablitos' version of flan ($4) was more airy and eggy than custardy and was served as a free-standing rectangular piece that vaguely reminded me of a sweetened omelet. I tend to gravitate toward less-sweet versions of dessert, and this filled that bill.
The restaurant's service staff seemed to be working their way through growing pains, with an obvious interest in how the place is being received tempered by several forgotten or misdelivered orders. Weekday breakfast service began this week, too late for this review.
I was hoping that Diablitos would be a bold explorer of vast new tracts of territory on the local Mexican and Tex-Mex scene, but just poking around at the boundaries also serves a worthy purpose.
One and a half stars (out of four) • Where 3761 Laclede Avenue, midtown • More info 314-644-4430, diablitoscantina.com • Menu Lengthy list of midprice Mexican standards plus a few uncommon Mexican dishes — and a weekday breakfast menu • Hours Breakfast and lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner daily
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