Loop Scoop

Lesser-known culinary gems of the University City Loop

In keeping with the lunchtime theme of this week's musings, we had originally intended to ladle out a little ink on the Gourmet Canning Factory, the upscale Loop soup spot opened last year by Bill Saigh. Unfortunately, a trip down Delmar revealed that Dr. Saigh (whom I'd first met when he was a colleague of the distinguished Steber professor of marketing at St. Louis U., William T. Bonwich, before running off to fame and fortune as founder of the Lettuce Leaf) had gone from soup to "nuts!" with this latest venture. The windows are now all papered over, and a terse sign tells holders of gift certificates where to mail away for their refunds.

Sigh. But given that the Loop is probably the quintessential example of revitalized suburban downtowns, we took the opportunity to graze and do a little culinary exploring.

First stop was Sombrero Taqueria (721-6474), second stall from the back in the inside of the Market in the Loop. Sidali and Hakim recently added paella, or at least a version thereof, to their menu, and at $3.75-$4, it's a value on a par with their gargantuan burritos. The three available versions all come on a bed of spiced rice, with topping choices of seafood, chicken and vegetables. We tried the seafood version, which came with several medium shrimp and chunks of fish fillet, with a pronounced garlic aroma but only a subtle garlic in a flavor much more dominated by moderately spicy pepper. Zucchini and bell peppers filled out the rest of the dish. Even though only one of the owners was on duty at the height of the lunch hour and was working at least five orders simultaneously, taking even more as folks walked up, the food was cooked to order on the grill and came out in just under eight minutes.

Next it was on to Gyro House (721-5638), a tiny, eight-table storefront open seven days a week just south of Delmar at 571 Melville Ave. Middle Eastern music pulses its exotic rhythms and tones as you order at the counter, choosing from among classic Greek appetizers like saganaki (flaming cheese) and spanakopita (spinach in phyllo dough), or simply satisfying even a large appetite with the signature sandwich (starting at $4.40) of herbed slices of vertical roast. The folks next to us ordered gyros salads, and these proved to be utterly improbable in size, a large base of lettuce topped with fresh grated feta cheese and at least a dozen slices of the meat.

Finally we cruised down to the last block east before Skinker, where a couple of window signs indicated the imminent opening of Bean e Grain Natural Food Market and Deli, as well as an adjacent space called Bean's Java and Juice Cafe. In addition to continuing the tradition of the natural-food co-op that once graced a nearby corner, these new spots are further links in the hoped-for eventual expansion of the Loop past the invisible St. Louis/U. City boundary and all the way east to the MetroLink station.

The staff folks at the RFT are lucky enough to be down here every day. It's sad to see the demise of the Canning Factory, but it's also exciting to see the urban vibrancy that ensures that something else will surely pop up in its place very quickly.

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