During our trip down to St. Louis earlier this summer with our friends Scott and Marcia to see the Cardinals play baseball, they raved about the food they had at a Mexican restaurant in the Soulard neighborhood - Chava's. After a Cardinals game on a Saturday night, we were all up in the air about a place to eat. I finally whipped the car around and pointed us back toward Soulard. If Scott and Marcia were raving about the food at Chava's, I wanted to try it.
Mike and Min's was a destination bar in the Soulard neighborhood since just after Prohibition was repealed in the 1930's. It was, quite possibly, THE name bar in a neighborhood of bars and eateries over the years. And it was a real dive bar. Even though Mike and Min's ownership changed hands numerous times over the years, it endured with nights of drunkenness, rowdy behavior and loud music. I liked Mike and Min's - especially their bloody mary's - but I will admit that the place could get a little out of hand at times.
When the ownership of Mike and Min's shut down the place for the last time about seven years ago, it opened the door for Chris Ybarra to leave his job as manager of the popular Chuy Arzola's Tex-Mex restaurant in St. Louis' Dogtown neighborhood (south of 40 Highway/Interstate 64 from Forest Park and north of Manchester Ave.) after 14 years. Ybarra refurbished the old space and opened the doors to Chava's toward the end of February in 2006. He named the place "Chava's" after his grandfather, Salvatore. "Chava" is the nick-name for men named Salvatore in Mexico.
It was after 10 p.m. when we pulled into Soulard. Since it was a Saturday night, we knew we'd be in for a little bit of a search for parking on the street. However, there's a parking lot across from Chava's at 10th and Geyer (see map) and there was one spot open. We were lucky.
Chava's closes promptly at 10:30 on Saturday nights and we were warned when we sat down that it was last call on drinks and that we had to make our minds up quickly on what we wanted to eat. I realize after a busy night the kitchen and bar staff want to shut down quickly and I'm sure they weren't happy when a party of four came in the door of the ornate restaurant at 10:15.
There were still a smattering of people in the place. Some people were seated at the bar. I vaguely remember the bar at Mike and Min's was on the opposite side of the one at Chava's. The tin ceiling and the exposed brick walls made it look more like an old-time saloon than a Mexican restaurant.
There's an upper seating area (above right) that had a group of loud women, no doubt enjoying the margaritas Chava's makes with fresh-squeezed fruit juices such as pineapple, oranges, limes and mango. It's hard for me to describe the decor of the upper level other than they made it look like a basement cantina.
Our seating area on the main level featured a number of rustic furnishings and Mexican artwork. With the tin roof and the hard wood floors, even with a small group of people in the place, we knew it could get loud in the small confines of the dining areas.
The menu at Chava's is short, concise and really to the point when it comes to Mexican food. Sure, they have the usual Mexican fare - tacos, burritos, enchiladas, fajitas, etc. - but they also had stuffed peppers, tamales and flash fried tacos. For the vegetarians who want to venture into Chava's, they feature three vegetarian dishes to choose from.
Munching on the chips and the salsa - which had a subtle kick to it - we knew we were up against the clock when it came to choosing what we wanted to eat. I thought about getting the stuffed peppers with ground beef, but then I saw they had pork chimichangas topped with the green salsa verde, guacamole and sour cream. I signed up for that. Scott got the pork enchiladas - you can get beef or chicken enchiladas with the corn tortilla wrap, but the shredded pork enchiladas come with flour tortillas.
Cindy ordered the "El Mireko" - two flash fried chicken burritos topped with chile con queso and guacamole. Marcia decided to go the light route since it was so late in the evening and she ordered the chicken tortilla soup combo with a fish taco.
Since we were the last people to order food, it didn't take long for our orders to make it to the table. It was around 10:35 when the food arrived - five minutes after closing time. When the server brought our food out to the table, I asked if I could get another beer. He said, "Sorry, sir. The bar is closed."
I was sort of incredulous as people were still seated at the bar, until Cindy said, "Didn't you hear him? He said it was last call when we sat down." Well, yeah, I heard him, but I didn't think it was "last call, last call". That's OK, I had enough beer in me for the day.
My chimichanga wasn't big, but it was fat - full of seasoned chunks of pork in a green salsa verde. It was actually very good. The salsa verde wasn't spicy and it helped with define the taste of the pork in the chimichanga. But what I was most impressed about my meal was the refried beans. Most of the time, you'll get mushy refried beans warmed up and sprinkled with shredded cheese on the top. The refried beans at Chava's appear to be made in house. I mean, you could really see the beans and they had some body to them as you ate them. I'll have to say they may have been the best refried beans I've ever had at a Mexican restaurant. I usually only take one or two bites of refried beans at other places, but I finished the whole batch that was on my plate.
Cindy's El Mireko chicken burritos (above right) also had a side of the refried beans with rice. A little spicy chile con queso was ladled onto the top of the burritos, which by being flash fried gave the tortillas the chicken was wrapped in a flaky and light texture. She said her burritos were very good.
Scott's enchiladas (below left) had a load of melted cheese on top. The three flour tortillas were filled with seasoned shredded pork that he declared as "delicious". The shredded pork he had did look good and tender. While I was happy with my pork chimichanga, I made a mental note to look hard at the shredded pork enchilada if were to come back to Chava's at some point.
And Marcia's chicken tortilla soup and fish taco looked like a lot of food. She said, "Oh, boy. I don't know if I can finish this." The soup had chunks of chicken and homemade tortilla chips in a tomato base. The fish taco was deep fried - something that I don't care for all that much. But Marcia informed me that it was lightly breaded and didn't taste like fish stick tacos that I've had at other places. "They've obviously breaded this fish here, themselves," she explained. "The breading is light and the fish doesn't taste like it had been breaded and then frozen." She thought I'd like it, but I'm still partial to grilled fish for tacos.
For my first visit to Chava's, I was thoroughly happy with my meal. I understand that "last call" means "last call" at the place, but the waiter was a good guy about it. For making him stay a little later, I gave him a couple extra bucks on the tip than I normally would. All of us enjoyed our food, and Scott and Marcia were certainly spot-on when they told us earlier in the day that Chava's food was very good. Although I've yet to try the newly reopened and relocated Arcelia's a couple blocks away from Chava's in Soulard, I think I may have just found my new favorite Mexican restaurant in St. Louis.