Fire chicken gangjung.
When Michelle and Min Baik opened their restaurant, Fire Chicken (10200 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-551-2123), in August 2020, they were already well-prepared to handle the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. That’s because rather than having to adapt their business to a carryout/delivery-only model, that model already was a key part of their plan. The pair took special care to understand the ins and outs of the delivery services and systems they’d be using to get their food to customers, and even conceived of an airlock-style carryout system that ensures customers and staff have as little contact with other humans as possible. But a good restaurant is not built on a seamless ordering process alone. Luckily, the Overland eatery’s Korean-inspired wares are so delicious and well-executed that even city-dwellers have been trekking to the county to get a taste of the delicious flavors on offer. While the more familiar dishes on the menu, served up with thoughtful twists by the Baiks, are excellent — a heaping pile of bulgogi beef is served chock-full of green beans, carrots and onions; pan-fried mandu dumplings can be ordered covered in cheese and spicy mayonnaise — it’s the gangjung, whose chicken variation lends the restaurant its name, that really shines. For that dish, nuggets of breaded chicken are fried to a golden crisp, then covered in a hot sweet-soy sauce accentuated with jalapeños and red chiles. It’s nothing short of a culinary revelation on a bustling strip of Page Avenue, and one that is aptly named — both the dish and the restaurant are nothing short of “fire.”
When thinking through the state of affairs that is the St. Louis restaurant scene in 2021, how you feel about things, more than ever, depends upon which side of the table you sit. If you’re
a diner, post-vaccine rollout 2021 has been a glorious return
to some semblance of normalcy. Gone are the days of shuttered doors, curbside-only and sanitizing your takeout containers, replaced with open dining rooms, full-service experiences and actual flatware. Sitting inside the four walls of an eatery, sipping a craft cocktail and listening to the day’s specials feels so familiar, it’s tempting to see the pandemic through the rearview mirror and not as an
But it’s very much ongoing for those in the business. If this year has seemed like a return to normal for the dining public, it has been nothing short of a sea change for the industry, with the concept of normal being blown to bits by everything from staffing shortages to soaring food costs to the continuing financial stress that comes from enhanced safety protocols as well as a year and a half of slashed revenues due to shuttered dining rooms and reduced capacities. If the pandemic did anything to the industry, it exposed its flaws and vulnerabilities, with restaurants being forced to reckon with these things in ways that the dining public will soon be unable to ignore.
We’re witnessing a seismic shift in the industry that has been a long time coming. Going out to eat is just going to cost more. There is no way around it. Restaurants have to pay higher wages and provide benefits to their employees, and they have to be protective of workers’ quality of life. However, this money does not come out of thin air. The dining public will have to recognize that, if they want to continue to have the privilege of going out to eat, they will be paying prices that accurately reflect what goes into that. It’s just that simple.
These are fraught times for the industry, which is why we take the time to celebrate the following chefs, restaurateurs and industry professionals who refuse to be deterred from sharing their craft. Despite the daily challenges they face, they still get up every morning, turn on the ovens and polish the glassware to welcome us into their homes away from home. That they continue to do this, no matter how tough things get, is the truest form of hospitality. —Cheryl Baehr
Meredith Barry first showed up in town just three years ago as the beverage director for the former Grand Tavern by David Burke at the Angad Arts Hotel. But in that short time, she’s become an integral part of the city’s bar scene — not just for her talent, but for her humble, optimistic and vibrant spirit that is absolutely infectious. If you’ve had the pleasure of sitting across the bar from her at Taste or sipping on her outstanding libations for Gerard Craft’s liqueur brand, La Verita, you realize that she gets both the nerdy science and warm hospitality of bartending — something that will be exciting to experience at the forthcoming Platypus (4501 Manchester Avenue), her forthcoming bar with fellow bartender Tony Saputo, that is sure to be one of the most thrilling places to grab a drink in town. —Cheryl Baehr
RIP, Chef Ying Jing Ma.
Fans of the delicious Chinese fare served up at Chef Ma’s (10440 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-395-8797) suffered a serious shock this spring when the restaurant vacated its longtime space on Woodson Road, leaving behind an empty building with a sign reading “New Restaurant Coming Up” on the window. That concern was short-lived, though, and when the north-county eatery reopened in May, diners breathed a collective sigh of relief. But as it turns out, worse problems were on the horizon, and on August 5, the eponymous Chef Ying Jing Ma unexpectedly shuffled off this mortal coil. Diners, who had grown used to seeing the brilliant chef milling about the restaurant, manning the kitchen or chatting up customers enjoying his transcendent food, were devastated by the news, and fears set in immediately that the culinary delights he was known for would be next. But, thankfully, the employees left behind at the restaurant are committed to soldiering on, using Chef Ma’s transcendent recipes to carry forth his outsized legacy. That means the traditional Chinese dishes the restaurant is best known for, including the house specialty Hainan chicken, will still be available for its diehard fans, as will the elevated Americanized dishes, such as hot braised chicken and Mongolian beef. Chef Ma’s passing will forever leave a gaping hole in the St. Louis area’s dining scene, but thanks to the otherworldly recipes he honed over a lifetime, his memory will live on. —Daniel Hill
Sleiman "Sam" Bathani at Al-Tarboush Deli
Before he was the patriarch of the beloved University City Lebanese deli Al-Tarboush (602 Westgate Avenue, University City; 314-725-1944), Sleiman “Sam” Bathani was somewhat of a Lebanese pop star, traveling around his home country and regaling his fans with his stunning voice. Stranded in the United States while on tour due to the war that ravaged Lebanon, Bathani sent for his family and set out to create a new life as a restaurateur, first opening a club and events space in Chicago, and eventually landing in St. Louis and his tiny storefront on Westgate Avenue. It’s been a difficult ride that has led him to this point, but the way he has created something so beautiful out of the challenges he and his family have experienced is nothing short of inspiring. Al-Tarboush Deli is an icon of the St. Louis dining scene, with the best shawarma, falafel and numerous other Lebanese delicacies you can find in the area. Sometimes, when he’s slathering that mouthwatering garlic sauce on your wrap, you’ll hear him humming a tune — one of many gifts he’s been so generous to share with us over the years. —Cheryl Baehr
La Pâtisserie Chouquette
Beyond the jaw-dropping wedding cakes that have people clamoring from miles away to secure for their big date or the jewel-colored macarons that are so gorgeous they could be just as easily at home at Tiffany and Company as they are in a pastry case, La Pâtisserie Chouquette (1626 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-932-7935) is the city’s quintessential patisserie — the kind you conjure up when you close your eyes and dream of croissants and cream puffs and galettes but cannot swing the plane ticket to Paris. That owner Simone Faure has been able to sustain this level of mastery, consistency and joy for her craft for nearly ten years is quite a feat, especially during a pandemic when she’s had to completely rethink how to bring the patisserie experience to curbside, which she did with aplomb. And praise the lord she did. How would we have survived this year without access to her Darkness croissant? —Cheryl Baehr
Kendele and Wayne Sieve had a choice: Take over Kendele’s father’s bakery as he had been priming her to do all her life or forge their own path and create the Italian restaurant of their dreams. The latter was a big gamble for the two chefs, but one they knew they could take on. Not only did they have the culinary and hospitality chops, forged over years of working in the industry; they also had Wayne’s passion for traditional Neapolitan pizza that he’d been showing off for a year with a food truck. Now, a year and a half into opening Noto (5105 Westwood Drive, St. Peters; 636-317-1143), the Sieves have shown they made the right call by firmly establishing themselves as an outstanding, traditional southern Italian restaurant that dazzles at every turn. From the handmade pastas to executive chef Josh Poletti’s charcuterie that could bring a tear to the eye of an Italian butcher, from Kendele’s pastries (you’ve never had tiramisu if you haven’t had her version) to Wayne’s undisputed title as the king of Neapolitan pizza in the region, this is the Italian restaurant that dreams are made of. Thankfully, the Sieves were willing to follow theirs to make ours come true. —Cheryl Baehr
Bertha Lopez, Miguel Lopez, Angelica Lopez and Yesenia Lopez.
Last March, before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on life as we know it, Taqueria Durango (10238 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-429-1113) was suffering its own tragedy. The restaurant, thought by many loyal patrons to be the best Mexican eatery in town, burned to the ground, the result of a kitchen fire that started during its lunch service. In the year that followed, the pandemic only made the restaurant’s rebuild all the more difficult. But with the help of the community — including an online fundraiser started by chef Brian Hardesty — the restaurant was able to rebuild, finally reopening a little over a year from when the blaze made it seem questionable whether it would ever again do so. That Taqueria Durango is standing today as the bastion of Mexican cuisine it once was, if not even more so, is the hopeful story we need to let us know that we’re all going to be alright. —Cheryl Baehr
A beloved mainstay of the Central West End food and beverage scene, Brennan’s (316 North Euclid Avenue; 314-497-4449) has had quite the couple of years. First came the move from its original home on Maryland Avenue to a storefront just around the corner, a relocation forced by the ever-expanding St. Louis Chess Club. Then last December — the day before it was slated to reopen in its new digs — the bar caught fire, causing significant damage that delayed the debut of Brennan’s 2.0 until this July. Despite all of the setbacks, there was never any question that this essential part of CWE culture would continue to exist. For nearly twenty years, Brennan’s has been exactly the sort of handsome community gathering place the city’s most handsome neighborhood needs — a multilevel space to imbibe, smoke cigars, nosh and people watch some of the city’s most beautiful people. But despite its tony address and subtly swanky vibes, Brennan’s still manages to be a welcoming spot, making everyone who goes there feel as if they are part of the club. That we had to even consider a future without it, even for just a second, only made it all the more special. —Cheryl Baehr
Chiang Mai owner Su Hill.
When Su Hill was a little girl growing up in northern Thailand, she hated her mother’s lessons in traditional Thai cuisine. Trained in the domestic arts in Thailand’s Grand Palace, Hill’s mother would spend hours painstakingly preparing food, from picking herbs from her garden to grinding spices to dicing vegetables and then dicing them again. Hill thought she wanted nothing to do with such drudgery, but after her mother’s death a few years ago, she understood that the best way she could continue to feel her presence around her was if she cooked her food. That sense of longing and sense of duty to share her mother’s story with the world, plus Hill’s years of experience in the restaurant business here in the U.S., have converged to bring to life Chiang Mai (8158 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-961-8889), an awe-inspiring experience that offers one of the city’s most memorable dining experiences, regardless of the cuisine. Chiang Mai is unlike any other Thai restaurant in town with dishes that showcase the flavors of the country’s northern region. Though nothing fails to impress at this gem of a restaurant, the gaeng hung lay, a braised pork masterpiece so tender you could spread it on a roll, is particularly noteworthy — not simply because it’s delicious, but because it’s the most poignant example of Hill’s connection to her mother. Made with the same ingredients using exactly the same technique as her mom, Hill manages to bring to life a delicious dish, yes, but more importantly a profound moment of intimacy that we are privileged to witness. —Cheryl Baehr
Cubano at Coffeestamp.
Brothers Patrick and Spencer Clapp may have set out to offer St. Louis one of the best cups of ethically sourced coffee around, but in the process of setting up their cafe, Coffeestamp (2511 South Jefferson Avenue; 314-797-8113), they have also created one of the city’s most magical bites to eat. The shop’s Honduran-inflected menu is one treat after another, but the standout offering is the Cubano, an exceptional sandwich that is as close to the traditional version you will get in town. Roast pork and warm ham are so succulent that their juices mix together to form a mouthwatering meaty jus that soaks into the perfectly crisped, airy Cuban bread. Tangy Swiss cheese and rich mayo add to the decadence; pickle slices cut through it for balance. That you can pair this masterpiece of sandwich-making with an outstanding cup of coffee (or really, you should wash it down with the delicious housemade horchata) makes Coffeestamp one of the most exciting places to open in town this past year. —Cheryl Baehr