Taqueria Morita doesn’t look like any taqueria in St. Louis. It doesn’t look like a restaurant in town, Mexican or otherwise. If you’re sitting here on a warm late summer evening, slapping back half a dozen oysters with spicy yuzu and a hint of habanero Chile, or wondering if your order of fish tacos will get to your table before the gathering storm clouds do, the Space feels unreal – a beachfront eatery on the waterfront of the Cortex campus in the Central West End.
As the pandemic continued, the team behind the famous Vicia and his sibling Winslow’s Table (the restaurant group now known as Take Root Hospitality) built a partially covered, split-level pavilion outside of Vicia. This was opened in May as Taqueria Morita. The new venue has its kitchen set up in front of Vicia’s wood-burning stove, but essentially runs as a separate operation.
You place your order at a covered booth that doubles as a bar. This enhances Taqueria Morita’s beachy vibe, especially when the bartender happens to be preparing the Sandía, a watermelon-pink raicilla-based cocktail that whips the fruit’s sugars with the bitter botanical notes of bruto americano and a chili tincture. If a table is open, you can sit down with your order number. When the restaurant is full, there is a small waiting area where you can enjoy your Sandía or the simpler MargMorita made with resposado tequila, curacao and lime.
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To emphasize: Taqueria Morita does not offer indoor seating. If bad weather is forecast, check the restaurant’s social media to see if it opens. If you happen to be seated at one of the uncovered tables when those late-blooming storm clouds overtake your fish tacos, as happened to me on one visit, the staff will help you rush to the covered area.
For those fish tacos, head to Taqueria Morita, a strong new contender for best in St. Louis. Tempura fried cod yields a crispy batter and moist, flaky fish without a hint of fat. The kitchen coats the fish with two sauces, a smoky-spicy chipotle crema and a pungent jalapeño, and tosses fresh red cabbage on top for added crunch.
Aaron Martinez, who Vicia founders Tara and Michael Gallina made a partner of Take Root Hospitality earlier this year and also named the company’s culinary director, oversees the kitchen at Taqueria Morita. Martinez draws on his Mexican heritage, eating Mexican food growing up in Southern California and, as a former Executive Chef at Vicia, on this restaurant’s forward-thinking approach to seasonal cuisine.
When I visited in August, the bubbly sweetness of ripe peaches played a foil to the meaty swagger of the Adobada pork taco and the somber, convoluted heat of ancho, guajillo, and pulla chilies. That was less contrast than courtship. The fruit fell into the succulent pork, which Martinez prepared as a carnitas-like confit rather than a traditional casserole. The peach also helped bring out the fruity sweetness from the taco’s side dishes: onions marinated in habanero and a salsa borracha infused with beer, mezcal, and the restaurant’s eponymous morita chile.
As in Vicia, the most fascinating alchemy in Taqueria Morita transforms plants. For a play on barbacoa tacos, the kitchen roasted eggplants on low heat until just barely cooked. The nightshade was then smoked and marinated before being grilled to order. The texture of the eggplant was creamy but still firm enough to work as a taco filling. His taste had developed a sophisticated, smoky bittersweetness reminiscent of chocolate mole and a hint of molasses.
Martinez understands the importance of texture. Rather than simply topping the soft eggplants with a shishito mojo, he also topped the tacos with Inca-style corn nut crumbles and a chunky peanut-based salsa macha that supercharged the eggplant with arbol chile and intensified its flavor with fermented black beans and black garlic.
A seasonal tostada with zesty, crunchy slices of marinated, compressed and grilled summer squash and pickled garlic slivers on a crunchy tortilla with whipped goat cheese. The kitchen adds a mushy charry salsa tetamada and showers the plate with queso fresco. The finished dish is a fun — and almost as messy — homage to the classic nacho trio of fries, cheese, and pickled jalapeño.
Taqueria Morita hasn’t succumbed to the quesabirria craze yet, although its carne asada tacos might satisfy your craving. Paying homage to a carne asada taco he loved at a restaurant in Baja California, Mexico, Martinez pairs the grilled beef with a slab of crispy Chihuahua cheese, adds avocado for creaminess, and tops off the cozy arrangement with a salsa negra . The restaurant’s carne asada and all of its tacos are made into the award-winning corn tortillas prepared by Alex Henry at Sureste at the City Foundry’s Food Hall.
Like Sureste, Taqueria Morita isn’t trying to reinvent Mexican cuisine. Here, the presentation of Mexican street corn is striking: a single ear of corn on a plate, the husk pulled back into a makeshift handle. But the delights of this Elote are as traditional as they are undeniable: the intense summery sweetness of grilled corn, brushed with a tangy lime-flavored mayonnaise and sprinkled with queso fresco and morita chili salt.
However, both restaurants are keen to broaden the conversation about what a St. Louis Mexican restaurant can be, both in the breadth of regional dishes and improvisations they offer and in the experiences they offer from the Counter in the Food Hall in Sureste to al in the Taqueria Morita -fresco party. With Taqueria in the name, Taqueria Morita also implicitly challenges the assumptions of diners who still view Mexican and other cuisines as “ethnic” food – a term that has become obsolete for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the frequent conflation of “ethnic”. with “cheap”. .”
Taqueria Morita isn’t expensive, especially compared to Vicia, but for a couple, each ordering a cocktail or two and sharing some snacks and tacos, and maybe dessert — the Tres Leches pie with grilled peaches and a dash of mezcal is great – will certainly consider it is a night. Last but not least, I hope that the restaurant’s combination of playfulness, ambition and passion for the kitchen will inspire even more chefs and restaurateurs.
Taqueria Morita’s unique decor raises a unique issue: the cold. In a phone interview, Martinez told me he and the Gallinas had begun discussing how Taqueria Morita would adjust to the inevitable change in weather. No solid plans yet, but this restaurant, unlike any other in town, isn’t a seasonal pop-up, it’s a real eatery with what I suspect a long future.
Where Taqueria Morita, 4260 Forest Park Avenue (outside Vicia) • More info 314-553-9239; taqueriamorita.com • Menu Tacos and other Mexican dishes outdoors • Hours Dinner from Thursday to Saturday, weather permitting