Hot Eats: Diablitos Cantina

Tequilas and tortillas compete for top billing at this midtown eatery.

 

Complexity is a tricky thing to master. This is true whether the end product is a taco, a tequila, a new restaurant or an entire vertically integrated business model. In the case of Dr. Gurpreet Padda and Ami Grimes and their newest venture, Diablitos Cantina, it’s all of the above.

Add too much complexity, and the duo risks overwhelming the average customer, who was perhaps lured into the devilishly tasty joint by the huge skull mural and the giant metal T-Rexes outside. With the restaurant’s location near Saint Louis University, customers are likely to be in search of Mexican street food, which is all the better with cheap daily specials on albondigas (meatballs) or tacos. This customer will leave happy. But, so will customers seeking morethose who know the names Padda and Grimes from their other restaurants (Caf Ventana and Sanctuaria), their brewery (Cathedral Square), their real estate ventures or their medical company (Padda Institute). The partners’ famous attention to detail shines through at Diablitos Cantina, from the star-shaped tin lanterns on the ceiling to the tables made from repurposed Mexican road signs. The “little devils” theme repeats at many levels, from Day of the Dead skeletons to portraits of conquistadors.

In the Kitchen

Executive Chef Chris Lee and Chef de Cuisine Wil Pelly are Padda and Grimes’ go-to guys for translating ideas from concept to plate. Here, they keep the street food simple and authentic. House-made tortillas are just pliant enough; the pulled pork in the tamales is juicy and tender. Servers explain up front that the chips and salsa don’t come freeand it’s worth spending the extra $4 to sample from the salsa bar, starting with the basic house salsa, progressing through roasted veggie salsa to green salsa with a hint of fruit and finally on to tonguesingeing Diablitos salsa.

This summer, many of the kitchen’s ingredients will come from a Belleville farm that Padda and Grimes bought to supply their restaurants. This means some of the now ho-hum dishes, like elotes (corn on the cob), will be fresher and thus tastier. But, as summer harvest is still far away, February calls for a breakfast that will warm you from the inside outlike pastries bursting with eggs, potatoes, sausage, chiles and cheese, or perhaps a fruit-filled empanada. My personal favorite is the classic combo of deep-fried sugary churros with a cup of hot chocolate laced with chipotle and cinnamon. The full bar is open at breakfast, too, for Bloody Marys, spiked coffees or, if wintry temps have you feeling under the weather, El Pelo del Perroorange-infused tequila with enough Emergen-C to yield 24 nutrients and seven B vitamins. Here’s to your salud!

At the Bar

Fans of the cocktails at Sanctuaria may recognize bar manager Angie Cornish. The bar staff has the challenging job of balancing popular cocktails based on infusions of cucumber, hibiscus, jalapeo, citrus and tea with a mission of education on high-end tequilas. The complexity of the many quality tequilas behind the bar (including my favorite, Casa Noble) may be lost on the college crowdand it’s a safe bet they’re not going to be among the tequila club members paying $100 a shot to sample a Dos Lunas Grand Reserve. On the other hand, everyone can appreciate that the rail tequila is Aqui Vamos, which, at 70 percent blue agave, makes for a smoother house margarita.

 

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Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg

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