There are any number of reasons that Banh Mi So #1 – Saigon Gourmet is the perpetual winner of this category. There's the neon sign in the front window brashly declaring that the restaurant's spring rolls are the best in town. There's the simple alchemy of noodles, mint, basil and rice paper. (You choose your protein; we're partial to shrimp.) This year, though, let us celebrate the dipping sauce that accompanies those spring rolls, known as nuoc cham. It's a lovely amber in color, flecked with the red of dried chiles. It is an ideal balance of sweet and hot, tart and — thanks to a healthy dose of fish sauce (nuoc mam) — funky. Eat a spring roll here without it, and while you might enjoy it, you'll likely wonder what all the fuss is about. Eat a spring roll with nuoc cham, and the combination of the roll's clean flavors and the sauce's complexity will lead you to a deeper appreciation — and one more reason to declare Banh Mi So #1's rolls nonpareil.
How hard is it to make a chicken wing? You just toss it in the deep fryer for a few minutes and voilà! Well, try it. You'd be surprised. Some wings don't get fried long enough and wind up with soggy skin and frozen centers. Some get fried too much and are so tough that the mere act of chewing gives your jaw a good workout. The wings at Weber's Front Row strike that precarious balance between crisp and tender, maybe because they're cooked up when you order them, instead of getting plucked (so to speak) from a warming tray. Weber's coats its wings with Buffalo sauce that's hot enough to leave your lips a little tingly, but not so hot to burn your tongue. Yes, it is all about balance. Why should the ideals of balance and harmony be applied to things like art and the human soul but not to chicken wings? All are equally hard to perfect.
With immigration such a hot topic these days, it might be instructive to remind ourselves how much we benefit from a heterogeneous populace. Take Cherokee Street: It has enjoyed a renaissance as a thriving neighborhood owing in no small part to the Mexican residents who have set up shop there. It wasn't that long ago when something as simple as an authentic taco was hard to find in St. Louis. Not anymore. El Torito has great tacos, but it's also the place to shop if you're looking to make your own. In addition to groceries (including tortillas made from scratch in-house), Cherokee's biggest and most well-stocked Mexican market offers a wide assortment of cooking utensils and small appliances, not to mention shoes and apparel.
St. Louis is lucky to have three locally owned grocery-store chains. Schnucks, Dierbergs and Straub's have enough locations to amply provide residents with life's grocer-purveyed necessities. (Though one could argue that residents of some parts of the metro area have it better than others. Ahem.) Then there's the good people of Soulard, Benton Park and Lafayette Square, who are blessed with the distinctly non-chain grocery known as Vincent's 12th Street Market. Originally a butcher shop, Vincent's was founded by a Czech immigrant in 1912 and has remained in the family ever since, operating at various locations around town. For nearly a quarter of a century, the current location in Soulard has been home to Vincent's, which these days is operated by the founder's great-great-grandson and his two sons. The meat counter remains, serving up custom cuts, great deals and some seriously delicious pork sausage that's made on-site. Oh, and booze. In addition to your requisite selection of hard liquor, canned and bottled beer and wines, the place stocks more than 200 different types of keg beer — from imports to microbrews to, of course, the classic A-B product family. Try finding that at Schnucks, Dierbergs or Straub's.
Somebody really smart once said that tragedies and crises create opportunities, which could very well apply to the story of the Billy Goat Chip Company. Its erstwhile mid-city pub had a good run, until it didn't. But instead of tossing in their proverbial chips, the restaurant partners worked out a new business plan revolving around the item that had always gotten top billing on the menu: their homemade potato chips. Hand-cut from super-starchy russet potatoes and spared of preservatives, these extra-thick, kickass snacks will shame any of the greasy, wispy wimps you're used to grabbing in your local grocery's sodium aisle. Good for road trips and float trips, church picnics and potlucks, the Billy Goats could even be a great hostess gift, what with their retro brown-bag package. The chips are hawked at the company's shop and at numerous area stores and restaurants. (The website has a full list.)
Admittedly, this is probably the only meat loaf slider in town. But that doesn't make the dish any less deserving of recognition. Sliders are the ideal bar snack, and the Deacon's take on them is divine. Three petite sweet rolls come stacked with buttery green beans and slices of meat loaf that are just a tad smaller than a hockey puck. The rolls are light and fluffy, the meat loaf is peppery and lusciously moist, and the beans are crisp and savory. For dipping, there are three dollops of bourbon ketchup lined up on the plate as if the chef tried to play tick-tack-toe against himself. Combine the sliders with an entire menu of bar food brilliance (all of the "Hand Held Victuals" are excellent), an old-school jukebox (stocked with everything from A Tribe Called Quest to the Ramones though, alas, no Meat Loaf) and a location next to a sex shop in south city, and the Deacon is a hungry boozehound's dream.
It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. Someone had to put his neck on the line to judge this year's Milkshake Battle Royal, known on the streets as the Fount vs. the Crown Throwdown. After rigorous taste testing at both renowned shake crafters, the venerable Crown Candy Kitchen rose to the top over newer kids on the block like the Fountain on Locust. Did we say venerable? This tourist destination has been shaking it up since 1913. Renovations to the immediate neighborhood have only enhanced its nostalgic charm. And Crown Candy still serves the richest, coldest malts and shakes, in dented 24-ounce tins and a wide variety of flavors, from classic to left-of-center (marshmallow, anyone?). For $4.50 it's the ultimate in bloated bliss. (Plus, you can make it extra thick for $1 more.)
There are few things more mesmerizing than a cocktail. Particularly after you've already consumed several. The weight of the glass in your hand, the strange colors that come from mixing hard liquor and fruit juice. Just give it a shake. Watch the way the liquids swirl together. Listen to the musical click of the ice cubes. It's almost hypnotic. But there are few ice cubes as mesmerizing as the one that comes in the "San Francisco Summer" (and the "San Francisco Summer" only), a concoction of gin, blackberry liqueur, ginger and lemon that you can get at the Eclipse Restaurant in the Delmar Loop's Moonrise Hotel. You see, they're not just plain, old frozen water popped out from a standard ice-cube tray. These are mammoth cubes, molded in a tackle box. And embedded in each one are a raspberry and a slice of lemon. If you watch closely enough, you might be able to see the fruit emerge from the ice, nanometer by nanometer, holding your breath in suspense for the moment when it finally floats free. Ah! Cocktail hour! Ain't it grand?
For six years now, Blues City Deli has attracted St. Louisans to its Benton Park address: They crowd the entrance and sometimes even the sidewalk, waiting to order, and then they crowd the tables, elbow to elbow as they tear open the butcher paper in which their sandwiches are wrapped. There are twenty sandwiches, plus specials, and you can't go wrong with any single one of them. The signature is the muffuletta, a fat stack of ham, salami and mortadella with provolone and mozzarella cheese, topped with a delicious homemade olive salad. Po' boys range from Italian cold cuts to salsiccia to tuna, each elevated by excellent hoagie rolls and seeded baguettes. Blues City Deli often hosts live music in the evening, but no matter what time you visit, you'll leave humming a happy tune.
Do you want jellyfish? It shivers next to matchsticked cucumbers on the plate, cold and pale with only the barest blush as a server wheels the cart noiselessly past your table. It's OK if you don't want jellyfish. No, really. The servers at Lu Lu Seafood Restaurant understand that the smooth, vinegar-dressed flesh that yields to your teeth with a texture somewhere between squid and clam is Not For Everyone. They will politely offer it to everyone in the restaurant, from Chinese grandmothers who come for family dim sum every week to awkward tyros, pointing shaking fingers at the circling carts and asking meekly if that's some kind of chicken, maybe? The cart pushers will not press you to try the jellyfish if you don't want to; there are half a dozen other offerings on the cart, and none of them used to have tentacles. And the carts keep coming: sweet, fluffy pineapple custard buns; richly sauced greens; tofu stuffed with shrimp and scallions; pork shumai, shimmering through its translucent steamed wrapper. Special moon cake, its filigreed surface cut into four quarters so you can see the shining orb of dry, salty egg yolk inside. Wei wu wei — it translates as "action without action" — is a Taoist principle of finding equilibrium within the world. At Lu Lu it means being at peace with the dumplings and other delicacies that stream your way and at peace with yourself. Because you're not going to be able to move for a few hours if you eat everything that strikes your fancy.