Taqueria Morita doesn’t look like any taqueria in St. Louis. It doesn’t look like any restaurant in town, Mexican or otherwise. When you sit here on a warm late-summer evening, knocking back half a dozen oysters zapped with tart yuzu and a teasing whisper of habanero chile or wondering whether your order of fish tacos will arrive at your table before the gathering thunderclouds do, the space feels unreal — a beachfront joint on the shores of the Central West End’s Cortex campus.
As the pandemic lingered, the team behind the celebrated Vicia and its sibling Winslow’s Table (the restaurant group now known as Take Root Hospitality) built a split-level, partially covered pavilion outside Vicia. This opened in May as Taqueria Morita. The new venue has set up its kitchen in front of Vicia’s wood-fired hearth but essentially runs as a separate operation.
You place your order at a covered stand that doubles as the bar. This reinforces Taqueria Morita’s beachfront vibe, especially if the bartender happens to be preparing the Sandía, a watermelon-pink, raicilla-based cocktail that lashes the fruit’s sugars with Bruto Americano’s bitter botanical notes and a chile tincture. If a table is open, you can sit down with your order number. If the restaurant is crowded, there is a small waiting area where you can sip your Sandía or the more straightforward MargMorita, with resposado tequila, Curaçao and lime.
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To emphasize: Taqueria Morita offers no indoor seating. When inclement weather is forecast, check the restaurant’s social media to see if it will open. If you happen to be sitting at one of the uncovered tables when those late-blooming thunderclouds outrace your fish tacos, as happened to me on one visit, the staff will help you hustle to the covered area.
You should hustle to Taqueria Morita for those fish tacos, a strong new contender for the best in St. Louis. Tempura-fried cod yields a crisp batter and moist, flaky fish without a hint of grease. The kitchen paints the fish with two sauces, a smoky-sharp chipotle crema and a piercing jalapeño, and tosses fresh red cabbage on top for extra crunch.
Aaron Martinez, whom Vicia founders Tara and Michael Gallina this year made a partner in Take Root Hospitality and also elevated to become the company’s culinary director, leads Taqueria Morita’s kitchen. Martinez draws on his Mexican heritage, Mexican food he ate while growing up in southern California and, as the former executive chef of Vicia, that restaurant’s forward-thinking approach to seasonal cuisine.
When I visited in August, the gushing sweetness of ripe peach played foil to the pork adobada taco’s meaty swagger and dusky, coiled heat of ancho, guajillo and pulla chiles. This was less contrast than courtship. The fruit collapsed into the succulent pork, which Martinez prepared as a carnitas-like confit rather than a traditional braise. The peach also helped draw out the fruity sweetness from the taco’s garnishes: habanero-marinated onions and a salsa borracha infused with beer, mezcal and the restaurant’s eponymous morita chile.
As at Vicia, the most fascinating alchemy at Taqueria Morita transforms plants. For a play on barbacoa tacos, the kitchen roasted eggplant at a low temperature until it was just barely cooked. The nightshade was then smoked and marinated before being grilled to order. The eggplant’s texture was creamy but still firm enough to work as a taco filling. Its flavor had developed a sophisticated, smoky bittersweetness that evoked a chocolate mole and a hint of molasses.
Martinez understands the importance of texture. Rather than simply sluicing the soft eggplant with a shishito mojo, he also sprinkled the tacos with crumbles of Inca-style corn nuts and a coarse, peanut-based salsa macha that both charged the eggplant with arbol chile and intensified its savoriness with fermented black beans and black garlic.
A seasonal tostada layered piquant, snappy slices of marinated, compressed and grilled summer squash and pickled garlic scapes on a crisp tortilla spread with whipped goat cheese. The kitchen adds a pulpy, charry salsa tetamada and showers the plate with queso fresco. The finished dish scans as a fun — and nearly as messy — homage to the classic nacho trio of chips, cheese and pickled jalapeño.
Taqueria Morita hasn’t succumbed to the quesabirria craze yet, though its carne asada tacos might satisfy your craving. As a tribute to a carne asada taco he loved at a restaurant in Baja California, Mexico, Martinez pairs the grilled beef with a patch of crisped Chihuahua cheese, adds avocado for creaminess and stings the snug arrangement with a salsa negra. The carne asada and all of the restaurant’s tacos are folded into the excellent corn tortillas made by Alex Henry at Sureste in the Food Hall at City Foundry.
Like Sureste, Taqueria Morita isn’t trying to reinvent Mexican cuisine. Here the presentation of Mexican street corn is striking: a single cob of corn on a plate, its husk pulled back into a makeshift handle. But this elote’s pleasures are as traditional as they are undeniable: the intense summery sweetness of grilled corn slathered with a tangy lime-tinged mayonnaise and sprinkled with queso fresco and morita chile salt.
Both restaurants, however, are interested in expanding the conversation of what a Mexican restaurant in St. Louis can be, both in the breadth of regional dishes and improvisations they feature and in the experiences they offer, from Sureste’s Food Hall counter to Taqueria Morita’s al-fresco party. With taqueria in its name, Taqueria Morita also implicitly challenges the presumptions of diners who still see Mexican and other cuisines as “ethnic” food — a term outdated for numerous reasons, not least of which is the frequent conflation of “ethnic” with “cheap.”
Taqueria Morita isn’t expensive, especially relative to Vicia, but a couple who orders a cocktail or two each and shares some snacks and tacos and maybe dessert — the tres leches cake with grilled peaches and a zing of mezcal is terrific — will certainly consider it a Night Out. If nothing else, I hope the restaurant’s combination of playfulness, ambition and passion for its cuisine inspires more chefs and restaurateurs.
Taqueria Morita’s unique setup does raise a unique problem: the cold. In a phone interview, Martinez told me he and the Gallinas have begun discussing how Taqueria Morita will adapt to the inevitable change in weather. There are no firm plans yet, but this restaurant unlike any other in town isn’t a seasonal pop-up but a true restaurant with, I expect, a long future.
Where Taqueria Morita, 4260 Forest Park Avenue (outside Vicia) • More info 314-553-9239; taqueriamorita.com • Menu Tacos and other Mexican fare in an outdoor setting • Hours Dinner Thursday-Saturday, weather permitting