Two Thousand and Ate: Ian chowed his way across St. Louis in 2008. Here's the best of what he found.

Two Thousand and Ate: Ian chowed his way across St. Louis in 2008. Here's the best of what he found.

RFT Photos

Top 10 Slide Show

As I prepare to count down my ten favorite dishes of the past year, unemployment is skyrocketing, the Big Three automakers are begging Congress for a bailout and I've spent another week cataloguing local restaurant closings on Gut Check, the Riverfront Times food blog. The urge to replace my top-ten list with a tribute to all those departed eateries is strong. Yet as I look back over the 51 restaurants I reviewed this year, I'm struck by how many of them offer pretty good grub for not much money. Can we celebrate 2008 as a banner year for St. Louis restaurants? Sadly, no. But I, for one, refuse to let the economy leave a sour taste in my mouth as we head into 2009. If you want to join me, here are ten (well, actually, eleven) suggestions, for budgets both small and still, somehow, large.

10. Cheesesteak at 9th Street Deli
The cheese is a nuclear shade of orange, a hue that sticks a knife in the heart of cheesemongers and Slow Food acolytes, but one that yours truly still finds irresistible. The cheese is not merely melting but a luscious liquid ooze. Glorious Cheez Whiz! Is the rest of the cheesesteak "reasonably" authentic? Yes. The steak is shredded and tender, the roll soft but not dissolving, the onions sliced thin and caramelized perfectly. (9th Street Deli: 900 Shenandoah Avenue; 314-664-3354. "Cheesesteak Quest," May 22, 2008.)

9. Burgers at Newstead Tower Public House...
What I enjoyed most was the ideal balance between the flavors of the grass-fed meat, tangy cheese and sweet onion. The beef, though clearly the dominant flavor, doesn't overwhelm. (Newstead Tower Public House: 4353 Manchester Avenue; 314-535-7771. "Grub Street," January 24, 2008.)

...and at BC's Kitchen
"Bill's Meister Burger" is one of the best in town, the thick, juicy patty topped with cheddar and blue cheeses, applewood-smoked bacon and, its signature touch, a spicy-sweet tomato relish exactly 37.6 times better than ordinary ketchup. (BC's Kitchen: 11 Meadows Circle Drive #400, Lake St. Louis; 636-542-9090. "Someone's in the Kitchen with Cardwell," December 11, 2008.)

8. Smoked Chicken Pizza at Onesto
Along with the chicken, which is smoked in-house, the pizza features roasted jalapeños, caramelized onions, bacon, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses and the restaurant's own "Booyah" barbecue sauce. The Booyah sauce is rich and tangy and pairs wonderfully with the smoky chicken. (Onesto: 5401 Finkman Street; 314-802-8883. "Booyah!" July 10, 2008.)

7. Pork tamales at Taqueria la Pasadita
The tamales (available only on the weekend) are the best I've had in St. Louis. The masa has a texture and flavor an awful lot like cornbread — or, to be more precise, jalapeño cornbread: either because the heat from the pork has leached into the masa, or because there's some pepper tossed into the masa mix, it's very spicy. (Taqueria la Pasadita: 2336 Woodson Road, Overland; 314-428-3832. "Tortilla Fats," June 12, 2008.)

6. Desserts at Revival
Carolyn Downs makes traditional desserts as well as "snacks." Bourbon balls have the texture of softened fudge and a very strong bourbon flavor. An adult's dessert. Chess pie, a Southern classic, has a lovely, flaky crust and a pure, eggy sweetness. Another Southern touch: chocolate bread pudding served in a Dr Pepper sauce. (Revival: 3800 Chouteau Avenue; 314-771-3939. "Do You Miss Good Ol' Home Cookin'?" May 1, 2008.)

5. Deep-Dish Pizza at Pi
The deep-dish crust is something else entirely. It is medium-thick and made, in part, with cornmeal, which imbues the texture with a faint granular quality. The exterior is crisp and a lovely, summery golden brown, while the interior has a spongy softness that absorbs the flavors of the various toppings while retaining its own individual qualities. (Pi: 6144 Delmar Boulevard; 314-727-6633. "Magnum Pi," May 29, 2008.)

4. Duck-Fat Frites at the Shaved Duck
There is no elegant way to eat these babies. Pluck a single fry from the tangle of very thinly spiral-cut spuds with fork or fingers and you'll end up with a handful. Share an order with someone else and the two of you might reenact Lady and the Tramp, munching on opposite ends of the same crisp, golden shoestring until you meet at the center of the table for a Daffy-flavored kiss. (The Shaved Duck: 2900 Virginia Avenue; 314-776-1407. "Quack Addict," July 17, 2008.)

3. Foie Gras at Araka
The foie gras' buttery richness and silky texture, here given a mild crunch by a pistachio crust, are paramount. Black-pepper honey provides both the sweet note you often want with foie gras as well as mild heat. Juicy grapefruit brightens the dish and provides a textural counterpoint, bursting in your mouth while the foie gras seems to melt. Now, I like foie gras — a lot — but only as an occasional indulgence. I never crave it. Yet in the days following my meal at Araka, that's exactly what happened: I craved foie gras. (Araka: 131 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton; 314-725-6777. "Just Ducky," January 10, 2008.)

2. Pretty Much Everything at the Firefly Grill
There was so much, all of it so good, that my memory is hazy. I remember luscious foie gras paired, I think, with peaches and the verdant snap of fried green tomatoes. I remember meaty portobello mushrooms stuffed with surprisingly tender escargot, all of it swimming in a garlicky-buttery sauce so outrageously rich that we kept passing the dish around the table taking turns sopping it up with bread. There were lovely little lamb chops dressed with tzatziki sauce and meant to be eaten as lollipops. There was even crab rangoon, stuffed with actual crab, fried to an ethereal light crispness and served with a sweet chile sauce. Have you eaten elk? You can at Firefly Grill, and I recommend you do. An elk rib-eye steak, seared barely beyond blue in a cast-iron pan, is wonderful: distinctively flavored without seeming gamy, lean but not overly so, and the perfect foil for a simple side dish of sweet corn. (The Firefly Grill: 1810 Mid America Avenue, Effingham, Illinois; 217-342-2002. "The Buzz," September 18, 2008.)

1. Barbecue at Pappy's Smokehouse
Mike Emerson does barbecue the proper way: dry. Or, as the takeout menu puts it: "Sauce is on the side 'cause there's nothing to hide." The meats are smoked up to fourteen hours over apple and cherry wood. The pulled pork and the ribs are nothing short of extraordinary. I ordered the pulled pork as a sandwich, and the meat was nearly as soft as the roll on which it was served. The rib meat doesn't fall off the bone. It almost falls off the bone. This is how I like my ribs. The crisp exterior, with the brown-to-red shading of cooked bacon, yields to tender, smoky meat with that simple porky sweetness that must be one of the top five flavors in the known universe. (Pappy's Smokehouse: 3106 Olive Street; 314-535-4340. "Heat Rises," April 17, 2008.)

Scroll to read more Restaurant Reviews articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.