Diablitos Cantina nudges the Tex-Mex envelope

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. More >