St. Louis is blessed with exceptional Vietnamese cuisine. This year the nod goes to Mai Lee, one of the area's longer-lived Vietnamese joints. Start with the pho tai, the cheap-as-dirt beef soup that's a meal in itself. Mai Lee's version is as good as it gets, with plenty of fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts and jalapeño slices on the side. The goi cuon, a spring-roll appetizer of shrimp, pork, lettuce and vermicelli noodles wrapped in rice paper, is another standout. Add it to the pho and you've got a huge lunch (or dinner) for under $10. But don't stop with the standards. The underdone beef is the best in town. It's a relatively simple dish -- just slightly chopped steak that's cooked until the mooing stops. Mix with rice, drench in the spicy, garlicky sauce that comes on the side and you'll appreciate the fresh tomato wedges that cool the mouth just enough to allow another bite. If hot isn't your game, order the duck or chicken steamed in wine sauce. Or try something else. With more than 290 items on the menu, there's enough variety to please anyone. The only downside is the dining room, a cramped space that fills up quickly during the dinner hour, but the tight quarters are offset by service that's prompt and consistent. This place is crowded for a reason.
"All men should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why." James Thurber, who emitted that bon mot, preferred the Algonquin to Nachomama's. Of course, Thurber didn't live in St. Louis, and he shuffled off this mortal coil more than 30 years before John and Nancy St. Eve conceived the Tex-Mex joint that has since become a local institution, so we can only speculate about what the Thurbster might have said about one of the 'Mama's fajita platters. (Probably safe to say, though, that he would have ordered a margarita while he was squinting up at the menu.) The joint has a drive-thru window, so there's no quibbling about whether it qualifies for this category. Despite that designation, Nachomama's is a blessing to those in whom the mere notion of "fast food" inspires indigestion. We go for the $7.25 wood-roasted chicken platter -- half a bird, marinated and grilled till the skin singes to a salty-spicy near-nonexistence that melts in your mouth, served with grilled onions, fresh shredded cabbage, tortillas, beans and rice -- accompanied by a flowerpot full o' chips ($1.89; also available in smaller incarnations), a scoop of house-made salsa and an ice-cold beer from the tub by the door. You, on the other hand, may veer toward a portobello quesadilla and a lemonade. No matter. We're both here because we want terrific food and no dawdling. So what are you waiting for? Order already, and dig in.
Few restaurants achieve the kind of smash-hit-from-moment-one success that has graced JaBoni's, the little bistro that opened earlier this year. Not only are weekend reservations mandatory, but to accommodate demand management was forced to convert the upstairs space from a low-toned, drinks-only lounge into another dining space. Not only does a devout cadre of regulars willingly drive into downtrodden Forest Park Southeast to happily spend $27 on a lamb chop or $23 on lobster-and-leek salad, they request specific tables and particular servers when doing so. Chef Ramon Cuffie deserves the key to the city for returning to his hometown roots after many years honing his art (yes, dammit, art) on both American coasts and in Europe; so humble is he about food so divine, he just might be the second coming. A sublime experience from beginning to end, dinner at JaBoni's merits a spot on every St. Louisan's "Things to Do Before I Die" list.
The appeal of the Rocket Bar can be summed up in six little words: "That is a damn high stage." And it's cramped, too. When Trans Am played in the spring, there was barely enough room for them to hand off instruments to one another, and there are only three dudes in Trans Am. This is the Rocket Bar's secret weapon, this wee little stage that fills the back corner of the room, which is itself up a flight of a half-dozen stairs: Every band assumes rock-god stature when its members are perched five feet over the audience's heads, especially when the room is just an average-size club. Still, there can be no Townshendian windmills, no Pollardesque karate kicks, no Vedderistic scenery chewing on the Rocket Bar stage. Bands must fall back on their music to entertain, and when you're pressed against the edge of the stage while a guitar amp is dermabrading your face with 200 watts of squall, you're either highly entertained or severely concussed by the end of the night. (Which, for the rock crowd, is really the same thing.) Add to this a well-stocked bar and a nifty little space-themed mosaic in the front walkway, and you have all the necessary ingredients for an evening of brain damage, bonhomie and ball-busting rock.
Tangerine hasn't been the same since Roxanna Ratossa -- she of the sharp wit, sexy disposition and totally hot cigarette-stained voice -- left last year; a whole row of fawners were heartbroken. Some -- gasp! -- turned to drink and ended up sauced at home alone. Others followed Ratossa to Modesto (5257 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis; 314-772-8272), where she now helms the horseshoe bar and serves all sorts of fancy wickedness to drinkers and hangers-on. Ratossa doesn't pander, doesn't patronize; she's more than willing to call bullshit on her row of regulars, who kindly accept her point of view and order another caipirinha.
It's only fitting that Steve Gontram earn accolades with the word "local" in them. First, he's a native St. Louisan who trained at the California Culinary Academy and worked at Wolfgang Puck's Bay Area restaurant, Postrio. Second, when he returned home to launch Harvest in 1996, Gontram built the entire restaurant's concept around the use of locally grown and produced ingredients. Hence: Illinois horseradish mashed potatoes, Ozark Forest mushroom reduction and sweet and sour Ste. Genevieve eggplant -- just a few of the countless examples from Gontram's daily-changing menu. Third, whereas famous chefs have cooking shows to tape, cookbooks to write, mass-marketed condiment lines to supervise and, almost always, more than one restaurant to oversee, a best local chef like Gontram stays so focused on making just one great restaurant that he actually doesn't serve lunch so as to give patrons the best at dinner. It's Gontram's Harvest, but for seven years now we've been the ones reaping what he's sown.
What is it with beer labels these days? Say what you will about Budweiser, but the damn beer's got a helluva label. Ditto Miller, Schlitz and some of them old-school foreign imports like Heineken and Bass. But these micro-beermakers -- honest to Pete, you can't swing a dead cat in a grocery store without hitting some Old Weaselnose or the like featuring (what's that?!) a picture of a dead cat on the label, fer cryin' out loud. The St. Louis Brewing Company, makers of the Schlafly line of malt beverages, doesn't boast the absolute coolest labels around, but at least they're straightforward. Schlafly would do any city proud. That the brews represent a city with a history as heady as St. Louis' is all the more appropriate. The flagship pale ale, which we honor here, has a lovely amber hue and tastes hoppy but not bitter, citrusy but not cloying, in the finest British tradition. Until the recent opening of the company's Maplewood factory-cum-beer garden, the Schlafly Bottleworks (7260 Southwest Avenue), some of the product was outsourced to the August Schell brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. No more. Now all your Schlafly pale ale is locally brewed. Here's to Tom Schlafly and the gang!
In the old days, poets penned odes to ravishing women and urns. Today there is the Seamus burger, which has been wrongly shunted to the back corners of best-burger conversations around these parts for far too long. This ten-ounce hunka-hunka burnin' love bests all comers thanks to -- from the top, now -- its poppy-sprinkled kaiser bun, its fully dressed presentation (including fresh lettuce and tomato, raw onion and pickle and a cup of mayonnaise), its sweet and salty beef (which tastes terrific) and its bottom bun (nothing special, but you gotta have a bottom bun, eh?). This is a classic American pub burger, almost indescribable by mere words. Price: $5.95, with variations that can take it up to $7.50. Eat well.
All right, the closing of the Galaxy wasn't really all that bad -- more of a mercy killing, really, after it limped and staggered through the last year. But don't remember the Galaxy as a Clear Channel outlet with a poor sound system and a stage facing the wrong way for the length of the room; remember it instead as the big club that once booked great touring bands like Queens of the Stone Age, as well as oddball local acts like Mark Deutsch and Eric Hall's Massamalgam collective, or as the only club to ever host a Western Robot show, or as the home to the best Fetish/Goth night the area had for a while there. Remember the night Third Lip Cabaret reconfigured the Galaxy with a multimedia art show, replete with installation art and video projections and a punishing Dave Stone solo performance, while just outside hordes of shiny-shirt-clad bohunks and their silicone ladies peered bemusedly in the window on their way to the chi-chi clubs that now dominate Washington Avenue. Remember the Galaxy as a cautionary tale and as a once-proud example of the diverse music scene she herself fostered. R.I.P., Galaxy; St. Louis is better for having known you.
Yes, the Cheesecake Factory opened here this past year, and its prime location (in the Galleria) and gi-normous portions will ensure that the chain prospers just fine in the 314. The real excitement in restaurants, though, is being brought on by the little man: individually owned ventures that actualize the personal visions and professional dreams of chefs and restaurateurs who have paid their dues. Atlas Restaurant & Lunch Room, Cummel's Café, Breakfast Tools, Bastante, Goody Pancake House, Iron Barley, JaBoni's, Monarch -- each establishment strives to be one of a kind, in many cases in neighborhoods that are in woeful need of some eating-out spark, and each did not exist a mere twelve months ago. If customer enthusiasm for such endeavors continues at the encouraging rate it did this year, we may have the beginnings of a real restaurant revolution on our hands.
This is the way Barry Currie does it at the Pageant, where he is a doorman and bouncer: Spotting trouble, be it a malcontent or miscreant, he puts on his best face and assumes a calm disposition, one that comes very naturally to him. He's like that horse whisperer or something. He approaches, places his hand on the evildoer's shoulder, firmly but without malice, and informs him that, sorry, time is up. "You are going to have to leave now." His size -- a solid, big-boned intimidator -- works as the unspoken Enforcer, and the calm in the heart of his eyes, which also comes naturally, serves to lower the testosterone to acceptable levels.