Luis Trabanco's eyes twinkle with regularity as he greets and serves customers at La Tropicana, the gem of a Hispanic market he and his family run on Lindenwood just west of Kingshighway in South St. Louis. But he got an absolute glow the day we asked the Cuban native to make us some authentic Cuban coffee, almost candylike in sweetness and packing a kick exceeded only by the one most expatriates would like to give Fidel. ¡Viva Luis! ¡Viva Tropicana!
St. Louis has no shortage of late-night diners, which is not surprising, given that this is the town that invented that weird not-quite-dinner, not-quite-breakfast meal known as the slinger. No doubt about it: St. Louis folks clearly have a thing for going out drinking, then foraging for food at 3 a.m. Many end up stopping in at Uncle Bill's. The reason is clear: Uncle Bill's serves up good breakfast and dinner 24 hours a day. On those strange late-night outings, Uncle Bill's is a constant and about as comforting as breakfast at your mom's house, except without those disapproving glares. It's nice to know that in those wee hours after the bars close, there's a place where the food is always hot and there's always a spot just for you.
Eyeing a mountain of macaroni-and-cheese and what seems to be a never-ending pile of catfish, our guest declares his dinner at Terri's Southern Cafeteria "big enough for two." He is right: After diving in and working for a half-hour, he's made barely a dent -- not a bad deal for $7. Although the portions make it seem like Thanksgiving every day, the taste is comfort food at its finest. The menu varies but always includes macaroni-and-cheese that's rich and creamy, fried potatoes smothered with onions, Southern-style butter beans and oh-so-warm bread pudding. Ribs are grilled outside and not only beckon all who pass but add to the down-home feel. The smells alone are enough to clog the arteries, but sampling this fare is a religious experience that is good for the soul in more ways than one.
Forget the froufrou coffee bars. When it's just time to sit around and read the morning paper among a wide-ranging cross-section of suits and coveralls, lawyers and truck drivers, old and young, black and white and tan and yellow, nothing beats a stop at the Majestic, the decades-old corner diner at Euclid and Laclede. If you're new, the very first question is usually "Coffee?" -- and if you've been in more than a few times in the past, a full cup is in front of you even before you're fully settled.
Bar food is on the wane in many St. Louis establishments, poorly represented on both ends of the spectrum by kitchens that either drizzle white-cream-and-truffle sauces or rely on frozen substitutes bought in bulk at Sam's Club. But at Michael's Bar and Grill, the bar food is still battered by hand and deep-fried with loving kindness. Fries, cauliflower and their ilk will satisfy, but Michael's mushrooms will surely gratify your cravings. No chance of getting 'shrooms that are still frozen in the center; these fungi are cooked to order from fresh mushrooms and a batter made on the premises, resulting in delicacies that scorch the tongue and spill their steaming liquid on unsuspecting gourmands. Accompanied by two sauces -- horseradish and cocktail -- the ample portion will carry you through several innings of Redbird action on the big screen.
We prefer pizza that doesn't require a mouth-roof scraper -- pizza without that hideous Provel cheese. We prefer pizza made by creative types for whom pepperoni is an afterthought, who approach the crust as simply a doughy canvas. The Sunflour Café makes a great pizza, filled with combinations that seem strange on paper but make sense in your mouth: The specials on the summer menu include a hummus base with feta, kalamata olives and tomatoes; basil pesto, rum raisins and fennel-garlic sausage; russet potatoes mashed with ricotta, roasted garlic and parsley. It's a verbal mouthful, to be sure, and if the specials sound froufrou or pretentious or philosophically at odds with your conservative pizza preferences, we understand and encourage you to stick with your pepperoni and mushroom, ingredients that the Sunflour also offers. Or build your own beast using ingredients such as caramelized onions, jalapeos, pesto, pine nuts and roasted garlic. Either way, you win. What's best about Sunflour, though, is its consistency. Whether you opt for the nouveau accoutrements or the old standards, the pizza's gonna taste great and serve its purpose of bombing your stomach. The crust has just enough heft to give it a solid flavor (available in both white and wheat), and the Sunflour is firm enough in its convictions to offer only one style of crust, not a half-dozen. A great pizza.
Mortadella. Coppa. Genoa and several other salamis. (Even if you don't know the names, just point, as you would in a little village in the Tuscan countryside.) Owing largely to its prosciutto, Volpi's is one of the most renowned Italian-style meat suppliers in the country, but it also has so much more than just that fabulous razor-thin-sliced cured ham. And it's headquartered right in the center of the Hill, with a small market and retail counter out front where you can buy the familiar stuff at a significant discount over what you pay at the supermarkets, as well as introduce yourself to any number of cold cuts you've probably never heard of before.
If you're not a merchant -- in fact, if you're not the right sort of merchant -- you've got no business in Trautman's Bar & Grill at lunchtime. As for the lunch of merchants, Trautman's sign says it all: MERCHANTS LUNCHES. You won't even know the place is called Trautman's if you don't look at a menu, which you'll need to do in any case to order a "BRAIN SANDWICH on Rye with Pickle and Oniom, 3.50). There is another option, though, and that is Saturday, when, in late spring, they may leave the door propped open for the breeze. You can sit in the cool, nicotined interior, drink Milwaukee's Best from a short glass and listen to "Walk, Don't Run" for a couple of hours. Your brief time on this earth could be less well wasted.
The South City Diner may serve diner food, but there's nothing mundane about it. The coffee is truly excellent. The chili has an extra-tomatoey flavor and compares favorably with anybody's. Everybody raves about the diner's pancakes, too. The menu also includes some unexpected items, such as pasta with pesto sauce, grilled polenta, and liver and onions. The winner of the "I dare you" category is their answer to the slinger, the Meatloaf Omelette -- just don't attempt this one while on a date. The retro atmosphere features a jukebox full of oldies, records and album covers mounted to (and falling off) the walls, comfy vinyl booths, happy X-mas lights and plenty of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. The colorful locals of the South Grand area are lucky to be close enough to haunt this joint.
Two things separate a good Mexican restaurant from a great one: the frijoles and the tortillas. A great Mexican restaurant has refried beans that are smooth and flavorful, with just a hint of cheese. The tortillas are always homemade and warm. Salina's has both. It also has the ever-so-hard-to-find chili Colorado, a delicious entrée of steak cut into bite-size pieces and smothered in red-pepper sauce. Forget the fork; just scoop the meat into the tortilla. The small restaurant, located in a strip mall, isn't fancy, but it doesn't need to be; the food speaks for itself. During the lunch hour, the restaurant is generally packed, and most of the customers are transplants hungry for a taste of home.
Most St. Louisans don't properly appreciate the wealth of local grocery stores this city offers. When, weary from a day's labor, you realize you need onions, tortillas, beer and toilet paper, you are offered more than convenience from the neighborhood store. Say you've a penchant for ginger ale or a particular flavor of potato chips -- mention it to the owner, and, presto, next week it's waiting for you. And it'll be on the shelves for as long as you're a patron. This isn't a special order; it's customer service. The best all-around store in the city is Garavaglia's in Dogtown. Avoiding cutesy specialty items (no Dogtown T-shirts available), Garavaglia's has all the basics, ranging from chilled champagne to cat food, at decent prices even. And their deli sandwiches, potato salad and brownies are cheap, tasty and filling when you don't want to face your own kitchen.