Fajitas with steak at Arzola’s Fajitas + Margaritas (2730 McNair Avenue, 314-226-9672) is not so much a meal as it is a religious experience. Chef Tanya Kay explains how she achieves such total and absolute perfection. The secret, she says, starts with the cut, a steak that has the perfect balance of firm, meaty flavor and high fat content. Her cooking technique, however, takes the dish over the edge. Key marinates the meat for 72 hours, then cooks thin slices of steak on hot lava rocks; the fat eventually melts into the meat and then drips onto the rocks, pouring over the meat from below, adding a smoky flavor. The result is a stunning masterpiece – both burnt and juicy, thin but not overcooked – not like strips of meat, but like gilded petals that have gently fallen onto a plate from a steak flower.
No wonder Arzola’s has perfected the fajita form. Although the restaurant only opened in May of this year, its roots stretch back some 40 years to Austin, Texas, where patriarch Eddie Arzola began roasting meat on a cart in the city’s vibrant entertainment district. The experience made Arzola realize how much he loved the restaurant business, so when he moved to St. Louis in 1986 to be close to his wife’s family, it was only natural that he gravitated towards the restaurant business. In 1989, he opened Chuy’s Arzola in Dogtown, which became one of the most beloved Tex-Mex restaurants for nearly two decades.
Arzola closed Chuy’s in 2008, and although he thought he was done with the restaurant business, he was pulled back a couple of times: first to help his son Kobe at the Agave restaurant, and then during a brief revival of Chuy’s restaurant in Midtown. After this latest effort, Arzola was confident he had served his last guests, but he was persuaded to return again last year when Kobe and his husband Derek Fatery took over Ernesto’s former wine bar in Benton Park. A couple living next door thought the area needed a solid Mexican restaurant, so they hired Arzola to help them create a place that paired Chewie’s legendary food with Agave’s sublime approach and great drinks.
The three partners, along with Chef Key, have made huge strides in realizing their vision. They’re packed into such a tiny space – Arzola’s consists of a 950-square-foot dining room and bar, as well as a back patio – that you wonder how they can fit so much warm hospitality and culinary excellence between their four walls. Place can be packed; tables are close together, and people are likely to line up at the front door looking for valuable real estate in the dining room. However, the moment Arzola greets you with her serious, friendly demeanor, you immediately calm down.
Arzola likes to say that he takes care of people’s business and that he just serves them delicious food. While there is no doubt that the service at this outstanding restaurant is second to none, I would keep coming back for more even if my waiter tossed the fajitas into my lap and told me to go to hell. But it’s not just the beef version that dazzles; the mojo shrimp version is definitely outstanding, featuring massive, flawlessly cooked clams marinated in earthy adobo and fried garlic. Bright, tender, and stunningly fresh, the shrimp makes you wonder if you’re in a seafood shack on the Sea of Cortez rather than a store in south St. Louis.
Quesadillas also set the standard for form. Filled with meat so juicy and charred that you wonder if you’ve ever eaten a properly grilled bird, Luna is a stunning example of what a chicken quesadilla can be. The meat is broken between two seasoned tortillas with seasoned black beans, melted cheese and pico de gallo; this is a simple list of ingredients, but each one is prepared with the utmost care. The vegan version of Tapatia is just as stunning. Here, the tortillas are stuffed with fried sweet potatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and melted cheese, making it a very satisfying vegetarian dish.
This uncompromising approach benefits from the Arzola burrito. At San Miguel, massive chunks of the restaurant’s excellent fried chicken are paired with spicy escabeche, seasoned ahiote rice, sticky cheese, crushed black beans, and red chili sauce. However, Ki does not stop there; The burritos are pressed in a pan, giving the seasoned flour tortilla a wonderfully crispy, flaky texture that provides a nice contrast between the outside and the gooey inside. The Arroyo version of the steak uses the same additional ingredients but is paired with the restaurant’s mind-blowing fajita meat.
While you’ll be forgiven if you rush straight into Arzola’s outstanding main courses, the restaurant offers some equally great appetizers. The classic queso, called “the sauce of life” in the menu notes, is a sumptuous cheese blend with a mouth-tingling spicy pico de gallo. Guacamole refreshes the heat; Blended with garlic, poblano, onion, jalapeno peppers and a generous helping of lime juice, the avocado puree has a very soft texture.
Tostades are frank. Here, crunchy corn tostadas are smeared with guacamole, then topped with diced prawns and grilled pico de gallo pineapple and drizzled with a delicious, slightly sweet red chilli sauce. This is a bright, fruity-spicy melange that tastes like fireworks. On the other hand, frijoles locos is a warm, savory dish with rich comfort. For this warm, rich bean sauce, Key takes chorizo-infused bacon and beans and mixes them with a velvety queso, crema, pico de gallo, and cilantro. The result is a dish that is part chili, part bean sauce, and is one of the most satisfying meals you’ll eat all year long.
Washed down with one of Arzola’s fresh-squeezed margaritas, you can’t help but marvel at how exceptional a Tex-Mex establishment can be when it falls into the hands of passionate people who are masters of their craft. . These fajitas alone will make you rethink all the others that have come before them, although when you eat something so great you won’t think about anything but how lucky you are to be alive.
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