Best Of 2002

Perhaps no food is the subject of more sizzling debates than pizza. You seldom hear expressions of warm feeling or heated opinion on the subject of, say, tuna salad, but pizza -- believed by some to have evolved from Middle Eastern flatbread -- seems to pluck at some particularly primal string in the human culinary consciousness. Between the orgiastic Chicago deep-dish, the avant-garde artisan focaccia and the crackery St. Louis-style are a slew of notable variations, but none so closely approaches the Platonic ideal of pizza as the New York pie. This classic artfully manipulates the critical crust-to-cheese ratio to achieve maximum enjoyment of both elements. Its quintessential representative in St. Louis is Racanelli's; they'll make your hand-tossed pie to order, bake it in a brick oven and never, ever try to poison you with Provel cheese. And they're open every day, which is precisely when you need a slice.
As the region grows, ethnic stores sprout throughout the city. One underappreciated gem of the scene is La Tropicana. Located in South St. Louis, near the intersection of Kingshighway and Chippewa Street, Tropicana is a hidden treasure. Not only does the market provide the fresh produce required for Hispanic and Cuban cuisine -- poblano peppers and cactus -- it serves what it sells. In the back, beyond the stocked aisles of imported foods, beer and wine, is a small café that offers authentic Mexican and Cuban fare.

Gone are the days when White Castle shunned advertising and marketing, relying solely on the reputation of its onions, grease and square buns to sell meat. Gone are the days when the all-night meal mecca was limited to a few locations in a handful of Midwestern and Eastern cities. The chain, which doesn't sell franchises, has grown to 30 outlets in the St. Louis area and can be found in cities including New York to the east, Minneapolis to the north, Nashville to the south and St. Louis to the west. The belly-bombers/greaseburgers/sliders are smaller than the competition's fare, and because of that they're cheaper and carry less fat. Of course, most people don't order and inhale half-a-dozen burgers at one sitting at McDonald's or Burger King.

To avoid useless fat, check out the best of the meal of the day at WC -- breakfast, if only for the world's best affordable coffee. It's not pretentiously "gourmet," but it's good and hot and, chances are, it moves quickly. The worst thing for coffee is to sit and burn. A large java with a plain cake doughnut -- individually wrapped -- comes to a reasonable $1.11. It's just the right mix of sugar and caffeine to jerk you into alertness. While waiting for a WC employee to pour the coffee into a paper cup with a faux Starbucks logo, don't forget a napkin to wrap around it. Coffee-cup holders are nowhere to be found. But where else could you get good coffee, a government-issue doughnut and a chance to hear a customer at 8:30 a.m. in the drive-thru order chicken rings with melted "cheese"?

Dieting is as American as mom and apple pie. But what continues to puzzle is that none of us seems to remember the first thing we were taught in health class our sophomore year in high school -- that dieting doesn't work. It's all about the exercise, folks. So, provided you can pull your ass off the couch and walk around your neighborhood for a lousy half-hour everyday, you can eat pretty much whatever you damn well please. Come to think of it, obesity is also as American as apple pie. And there is no finer way to reject our nation's new obsession than by taking down a heapin' helpin' of a local breakfast dish called the slinger, the finest version of which is available at your friendly neighborhood O.T. Hodge. A veritable carnival of grease and cholesterol, the St. Lou slinger is essentially a mound of eggs, hamburger, breakfast potatoes and -- yes indeedy -- chili! For you vegetarians out there, O.T. Hodge offers up the slimmed-down Eggs in Sauce, which comes sans hamburger (actually, at O.T.'s you get two cheeseburger patties with the normal version, adding insult to injury). Oh yeah, it still has the meaty chili. Maybe it's not vegetarian. Can't win 'em all!

A restaurant advertising "Fresh Salsicca" in its windows might seem an unlikely place to find a tasty vegetarian lunch, but Adriana's offers much more than just pasta with red sauce. Along with fresh salads, caponata and eggplant Parmesan soup, the café makes two terrific veggie sandwiches: the Charlie Special (featuring mozzarella, provolone, black olives, lettuce and tomatoes) and Sunny's Veggie (with mozzarella, Parmesan, artichokes, green peppers, and pesto dressing). The foot-long sandwiches come on flaky, perfectly toasted garlic bread, and the cheese has the smooth, fragrant quality you'd expect from an Italian restaurant on the Hill. You can find a fancier veggie sandwich in St. Louis; you won't find one more satisfying.

The vibe is one reason to visit Juhari's, located inside the Golden Grocer in the Central West End, but the restaurant's food is even more compelling. Offering a selection of vegetarian, vegan and raw food, the menu that ranges from Sojourner Scrambled Tofu and Veggie Bacon for breakfast to the Marcus Garvey Burger BLT and the Queen Ann Nzingha Club for lunch, with desserts such as peach cobbler and carrot cake as finishers. On Sundays, Juhari's offers a jazz brunch, but those who choose to go rather than stay can buy many items by the pound: "tuna" salad, "chicken" salad, African stew and more, all vegetarian and all passed across the counter with "Have a blessed day" as the staffer peacefully sends you, fortified, back out into the beautiful world.
Tucked under a black-and-white polka-dot canopy, off to the side of a strip mall on the main street of Ladue, sits Carolyn's, the spot for ladies-who-lunch. The smell of fresh pies, cakes and muffins wafts from the back kitchen of this cozy bistro into the dining room; large crocks of homemade soup stand alongside tureens of iced tea; the pastry, pie and cake counter appears to have been sent straight from heaven. But the true lure, and Carolyn's richest contribution to St. Louis palates, is her low-fat Waldorf chicken salad, made with yogurt, grapes, celery and walnuts. It'll cost you about $10 for a small container -- but it's worth every white-meat chunk. And say hi to the ladies.
Descending the stairs into this deli's soothing interior, customers are greeted by the ominous "Welcome to Eternity" sign hanging behind the counter. But if Eternity's Barbeque Delite is the last thing you taste before slipping through to the next world, its memory will gently carry you to the other side. Although the full soul menu hasn't quite been instituted, Eternity Deli prepares soulfully satisfying daily offerings that include greens, cornbread and a tofu fillet (think fish fillet without the fish). What's more, Eternity offers a heavenly side of skin-on fries that are manna from heaven to us vegetarians tired of the "lite" and bland side dishes that usually accompany our meals. Although not, strictly speaking, part of the soul menu, Eternity features a selection of eight smoothies, fortified with a choice of nine nutritional supplements, and homemade soy Ice Kream to top it all off. As affiliates of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, Eternity Deli draws on the cooking traditions of the Caribbean, East and West Africa, the Middle East and various regions the of United States to produce a cuisine that runs from the sublime to the exotic -- but always vegetarian.
Scoff if you must, but you can get good food at the gas station -- not just any gas station but the refrigerated case at QuikTrip. If you've sampled the chicken-fried-beef-and-spicy-cheese sandwich, you know how unexpectedly good it is -- it's got a hearty ... er ... beefy flavor. The spicy chicken sandwich is truly spicy -- you'd better have a gallon cup of Coke ready when you tackle it. The chicken-ham-and-Swiss, when heated in the microwave, is an almost reasonable facsimile of a Monte Cristo sandwich. The real surprise, though, is the teriyaki-chicken-and-provolone on an onion bagel. Huh? Who thought of that combo? A bit exotic for QuikTrip, wouldn't you say? Yeah, and damn good, too. You might as well buy a dozen and put 'em in the freezer in case of Armageddon. Each of these costs $1.19, and if you're pressed for time or money or the Del Taco drive-thru line is still clogged at 3 a.m., they're the best speed-and-flavor combination since U.S. Army helicopters dropped Snickers bars on the Vietnamese. Not long ago, when the economy went south, the price of these tasty sandwiches inflated to $1.19 from a flat $1, and a few hearts broke. Believe it or not, they had been priced at a dollar for about 30 years, in some kind of feel-good pact between gas station and consumer. A good sandwich that costs a dollar (or even a little more) can restore your faith in man.
Up for some serious beanage? Three words: El. Burrito. Loco. It's really huge, it's really cheap and it's really good, which is probably why we always have to wait for a table at this tiny, friendly South Side burrito stand. Although all the other tortilla treats at El Burrito Loco come in more diminutive dimensions, the corpulent vegetarian burrito is, for mysterious reasons (maybe because it's loco?), available only as a jumbo ten-incher. Bloated with refried beans, orange rice, pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole (with which essential condiment the cook is quite generous), the immoderate Burrito Loco can easily feed two people with reasonably nonloco appetites. What is loco is that, at just $4.50, it's the most extravagant thing on the menu.
Raymundo "Ramon" Otero, he of Ramon's El Dorado Restaurant, grew up in El Salto, Mexico, in a rural area where, as a child, he tended sheep and goats on the mountaintop where his family lived. He learned to cook from his mother, who for 25 years operated a restaurant there. After he arrived in Collinsville in August 1967, Otero opened Ramon's in an old gas station. It had two tables. The restaurant has expanded considerably since and features live music, a bar and the basic Mexican staples. But it's the guacamole that packs them in. Made fresh every day -- none of that store-bought stuff -- the guac is as authentic as anything you'd find south of the border: spicy but not too spicy, mashed to just the right consistency and with real avocados (of course), not the freaky processed type that some restaurants use. And the chips are fresh, often (but not always) served piping hot. Combined, they're the perfect appetizer.