Southtown Bound 

Ian finds a trio of local gems that hit close to home.

By necessity, this column tends to return to the same few areas of St. Louis. Downtown, of course. Clayton and the Central West End. The ethnic restaurants along South Grand and west Olive. Chesterfield. Always, it seems, when gas prices rise: Chesterfield.

True, I've taken field trips to Columbia and across the river to Illinois. Just last week I returned to Cherokee Street, one of my favorite spots in town. But for the most part I follow new restaurants, and new restaurants follow the money or the established demographic patterns.

Or that's what I tell myself when I'm planning which places to visit next. Problem is, it means I can easily overlook entire areas of the city, entire suburbs. And not just places on the other side of town from my home or office. I mean, places right under my nose.

Last month I moved to Tower Grove South. In the course of running errands around my new place and trying to find routes to avoid the worst traffic, I drove through Southtown almost every day. I've never lived too far from this area, but I've never spent much time there. One day, though, I was too hungry to drive much farther, and at the intersection of South Kingshighway and Christy Avenue was Kabob House.

Kabob House sits in the middle of an unassuming strip mall. It's a straightforward restaurant: a single room, cash only, warm on a bright summer afternoon — but, thanks to a few fans, not uncomfortable. As you might expect, kebabs are the specialty here, but on my first visit, I noticed the signs touting the gyros.

A gyro sounded just great.

Actually, I ordered the gyro plate, which brought two large pieces of freshly baked pita — much thinner than pita you buy at the grocery store, the surface blistered here and there like pizza crust — and enough sliced meat for two plump sandwiches. The meat was good, with that more-or-less universal gyro flavor (a little char, a little tang). The key here was an excellent tzatziki sauce, whose light, clean, cucumber flavor provided just the right zing of freshness.

On another visit I started with baba gannoujh, the creamy, pleasingly bitter eggplant mixture. For the main event I had the lamb kebab: a dozen chunks of lamb arranged around a mound of basmati rice, served with cucumber sauce and a salad of cucumber, tomato and lettuce in a tart vinaigrette. The lamb wasn't very lean or tender, but it was delicious, a pure, intense summer flavor of grill fire with an almost-citrusy bite.

My companion opted for the falafel platter: five fat chickpea fritters, pita bread and a fantastic, spicy tahini sauce. She's a falafel fan, but she's had mixed experiences in St. Louis. Too often, they're dried out. These weren't. In fact, the balance between the crisp exterior and soft interior was ideal.

You can order lamb liver and/or lamb heart at Kabob House. If you should try one or the other before I venture back, let me know how it is.

Jasminka Homemade Cakes

A reader tipped me off to Jasminka Homemade Cakes, a blink-and-you-miss-it Bosnian café where South Kingshighway meets Rhodes Avenue. Actually, café is too big a word for a place so tiny: There are only a few seats inside, a few tables on the patio. Call it a bakery with a living room.

That's not a complaint. It's an attractive living room, painted a soothing sky blue. Besides, if you're like me, you'll buy too many of owner Jasminka Malnar's cakes to eat in a single sitting.

Malnar has never owned or even worked in a bakery before. "I just like to make cakes," she told me. At her previous job, she would share her cakes with co-workers, and their praise inspired her. Three months ago, after a few years of pondering and planning, she opened Jasminka Homemade Cakes.

If you're imagining a few dainty morsels set atop paper doilies, stop. These are big, bold cakes — even simple, lemony cookies are two or three times as big as anything you might dip into your tea or coffee.

My attention was riveted by a cake about two feet long and nearly as plump as football. This was still whole when I visited, and its plain white-icing appearance was deceptive. Inside, Malnar explained, was a layer of cake around a layer of cream around chunks of banana. It was very sweet, more so than I prefer, but the banana added a depth of flavor that kept the sweetness from cloying.

Rum-soaked cake with ground nuts and a thin layer of chocolate icing was excellent, as was a torte much like German chocolate cake. But I think those simple, lemony cookies were my favorite of Malnar's desserts. Can cookies be al dente? That's how I want to describe these: soft to the bite, but firm enough to dunk in my coffee as I write this. A lovely treat, and a perfect summer snack.

Lily's

I never need a reason to visit a Mexican restaurant, and Lily's has hovered at the top of my list of places to try since before I reviewed restaurants for a living. But as I wrote above, I haven't spent much time in Southtown, so whenever it was time to choose a Mexican place, I usually remembered Lily's when I was sitting down somewhere else.

When the RFT first visited Lily's in 2002, it was located on Gravois at Gannett Street. A few years ago, husband-and-wife owners Salvador and Adela Esparza moved to the corner of South Kingshighway and Devonshire Avenue. It's by no means hidden — it stands at the southern edge of Southtown's main commercial stretch — but if not for the banner above the front door, you might mistake it for a private residence.

That's fitting: Lily's looks less like a restaurant than a basement rec room. The "bar" is several bottles of tequila on a counter, and you help yourself to soda and salsa. Without stretching your imagination, you can pretend the Esparzas have invited you to a family get-together. There will probably be children underfoot. One of them may refill your basket of chips.

The menu falls somewhere between a taqueria and your typical Mexican restaurant. You can order tacos in hard tortilla shells or in the traditional soft-tortilla style. (I recommend the excellent chorizo tacos, though at $2.35 a pop they're pricier than the tacos at most Cherokee Street taquerias.) A chicken burrito was strikingly simple: chicken, tomato and onion. You won't miss the cheese or beans or rice or sour cream. A chile relleno was fat and flavorful, and a tamale was wonderfully moist, though the pork inside was a little bland. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

Don't miss the weekend breakfast menu, which includes both posole and menudo. I opted for huevos chorizo, which was delicious topped with a smoky, searing salsa from the salsa bar and folded into a fresh flour tortilla. It's the sort of breakfast that could lure me out of bed early (trust me: high praise) — and back to Southtown.
Editor's Note: As originally published, this review praised the chicken tamales served at Lily's. The tamales are indeed terrific, but the filling is pork, not chicken. The above version reflects this correction.

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