Best Of 2005

Best Bouncer
At first glance Uncle Bill may be the least intimidating bouncer in the world. A pale and haggard sexagenarian with shoulder-length hair, Santa Claus beard and exhausted eyes, the old hippie diagnoses his condition as doorman's disease. "It's when everyone passing through the door begins to look the same," he muses. A local bouncer for more than a quarter century -- ten years at the Broadway Oyster Bar and another sixteen or so at Venice Café -- Uncle Bill has seen plenty of people come and go. The key to his longevity: sobriety and a razor-sharp tongue. Uncle Bill -- a nickname surviving from the 1960s -- gave up drinking years ago, which provides him with a sturdy upper hand when facing the drunks he must occasionally evict. As the self-proclaimed World's Most Dangerous Poet (he performs at the Venice on Friday and Saturday nights), Uncle Bill has enough verbal ammo to make even the most vocal drunk realize he's nothing but a braying jerk facing off against the finest bouncer in town.
Best Coffeehouse
The last time we were in MoKaBe's, in the dead middle of a too-hot Thursday, a couple began an impromptu waltz. He was all feet and good intentions; she added a step-breaking shimmy to the proceedings and laughed. Everyone around watched, giggling into their coffee cups. The midday waltz was a funny sight, but not at all out of place at MoKaBe's, where friends play board games, students pour over Paradise Lost or the Atlas of Human Anatomy, and cute girls flip through free weeklies. Everything about this south-city coffeehouse -- from the comfy booths to the yummy menu items (soups, sandwiches, quiches, sweets) to the free wi-fi to the 1 a.m. closing time -- makes folks want to stick around for an hour or four. And Mo Costello's wonderful staff members definitely know the business of the beans: They pour good strong cups of straight-up java, plus plenty of delicious espresso drinks (the Caramel Dream tastes like a liquid cookie; the Mama's Boy blends espresso with apple syrup and cinnamon). There's a pretty patio, plus a smoking area (downstairs) and a spacious nonsmoking room (upstairs). If you need something to do after you leave, check out the super-comprehensive community bulletin board in the loo. And no, ladies, you're not seeing things: That is a sombrero-wearing ceramic likeness of Dubya peering out of an old-school urinal.
Best Frogs' Legs
Urban folklore can't get much better than how the hell frogs' legs found their way onto the menu of an Irish dive in Dogtown that's been around since 1942. Problem is, nobody who's alive today really knows for sure how that happened. All that's left to ponder is the end result: the best (and maybe only?) frogs' legs in town. Like much of Pat's menu, they're breaded and fried. Also like much of Pat's menu, they rock. With a greasy yet flaky texture to the meat and a cup of tartar sauce served on the side, these legs come off as a culinary cousin to catfish. And they go great with beer.
Best Punk Venue
Once upon a 7 p.m. dreary While I pondered, weak and weary Of Hot Topic's popularity at the mall. Presently I slowed my ride And turned my head onto its side And to those gathered near I gave this call Gave them this call and that is all: "Good black-clad persons, would you know Where I might find a punk-rock show? A show that is both heavy and raw?" They all turned and looked at me As at a person who was crazy Then pointed upward and I saw A green awning that read "Creepy Crawl." Read "Creepy Crawl," and that was all. I parked my car in the well-lit lot (And took a tiny hit of pot) Around the corner my ass I did haul. I made my way up to the door. The wait was short; hardly a chore Then I entered the well-flyered hall. Flyers and scrawl; covering every wall! Behind an orange fence I took my place (I wanted no armpits in my face!) There I drank beer until I took a fall. The band onstage did scream and shout, The band onstage rocked the fuck out, And from my sprawl I did enthrall, Avoided a brawl and finally stood tall: "The Creepy Crawl's best punk venue of all! The best of all; now where's the toilet stall?"
Best Chinese Restaurant
There was a dark, dark time -- a time before St. Louis, before our salvation -- when the mere thought of Chinese food filled us with tremendous ennui. Our shoulders slumped at the sight of orange-lacquered shrimp. Well-meaning offers of egg rolls were met with world-weary sighs. Everything looked as bleak as a half-empty steam table. And then In Soo and kicked our ass. The hot-and-sour soup, peppery and head-clearing, was the first sign of an unfolding revelation. Then came the potstickers, savory fried dumplings stuffed to the gills with seasoned pork. Soon religious experiences arrived by the plateful: toothsome crisp eggplant, delectable moo shu pork, kung pao chicken so good that we'd like to crusade against any lackluster, heat lamp-warmed chicken that dares call itself kung pao. Our guru is the inimitable In Soo Jung, who always greets us with a hug, then yells at us for not eating enough, or for using the wrong condiment, or for holding our to-go box at the wrong angle. ("Straight bottom!" In Soo once bellowed at a companion who'd inadvertently tilted his leftovers. "Straight...bottom! Don't you speak English?") And as soon as we drive away from In Soo, marvelously sated, we plan for the next visit. Once you've seen the light, it's impossible to ignore.
Best Guacamole
What malevolent force keeps guacamole from being a more omnipresent foodstuff? Lesser dips and spreads -- ketchup, mustard, all things "ranch" -- force their way onto our table as if it's their birthright, when truly, guacamole, it is you we'd like to eat every day. But all is not lost, because we've discovered a great place for a fix. At Tortillaria, a charming Mexican eatery on the southern edge of the Central West End, the guac is fresh, fresh, fresh. And awesome. The avocado, long beloved for its ability to be good for us and possess the texture of butter, is mashed just enough to be chip-friendly. Chunks o' of white onion and diced tomato provide added texture and taste, and cilantro, lime juice and salt round out this guac mas fino. The whole yummy shebang, topped off with crumbled añejo cheese, is delightful on Tortillaria's pork tamales, house-made tortillas and fish tacos. Take some home, too: It'll make your chicken sandwiches and BLTs happy.
Best Bread
Sweet Lord, life has become so much better since the Atkins diet took up residence at the Chteau du Irrelevance. Not that we ever participated in that carb-hatin' fad, mind you, but just the sight of khaki-pantsed businessmen wrapping their hamburgers in lettuce leaves was enough to put us off our lunch. But no more: Bread is back, friends, and we're loving every oven-warmed bit of it -- particularly when said bread comes from Companion Bakehouse. Bread's the undisputed, handcrafted star of the show here; even when stuffed with awesome sandwich fixings (and Companion has 'em in spades), it remains the tastiest, most vibrant ingredient. The raisin brioche might be the only breakfast bread you'll ever need, and the crusty Parisien is no-butter-required delicious. Then there are the chewy, satisfying rustic loaves (olive or walnut), the rosemary-olive oil bread, the ciabatta, the five-grain, the airy St. Louis Italian. And here's the truly yummy upshot: Each fresh-baked loaf of carboheaven will cost you less than five bucks.
Best Place to Play Pool
Tucked away old-school style on the second floor, Saratoga Lanes is not only one of the coolest places in the city to bowl, it doubles as a dynamite pool hall. You won't find any dinky quarter tables here: We're talking six full-size fields of felt. The joint's swank Art Deco interior provides more than adequate ambiance; the bar, which divides the cuers from the rollers, manages to be intimate without being claustrophobic and provides a fine vantage point from which to observe the devotees of both.
Best Sushi
Once upon a time, there were some people living in a French-sounding town who were a little slow to adapt to the international ways of the world. Then one day a Japanese restaurant opened, and this mystified and terrified these people. Eventually, though, these finicky, timid people grew to like the dishes served at this new place -- as long as they were teriyaki and tempura. For it was rumored that this restaurant also served raw (!) fish, which they referred to as "sushi." But as time wore on, the children of the children of the townspeople began to dabble in the sushi creations as their forefathers never had been willing to. In fact, if you visit this French-sounding town today, you will see dozens upon dozens of "sushi" restaurants. And some of these restaurants serve only sushi -- no teriyaki dishes! Which brings us to Cha Yoon Sushi & Elixir Tea Bar in our little town's quaint but stylish Central West End. On any night (except Sunday), you can see people in this intimate café enjoying many tasty teas, Japanese beers, sakes -- and sushi. Oh, the sushi! Chef Bebe's Cha Yoon roll -- shrimp, eel, masago, mango and avocado -- is positively sublime, his spicy hamachi roll unparalleled. See the townspeople rendered speechless with joy. My, how they've grown!
Best 3 a.m. Bar
There's something thrilling about hanging out in a bar where you don't belong. As if the French Minister of Culture is going to bust in at any time, cuff your hands behind your back and drag you to impostor's prison. You do not belong at Sandrina's, not unless you're a shifty-eyed, chain-smoking old-timer. Sure, no one's going to arrest you if you show up, but Sandrina's is nonetheless a blast because they actually do make it sort of difficult to hang out there. It's only open Wednesday through Saturday nights, tank tops are not permitted, and they only accept cash. They have a television set, but it's only on for the occasional baseball or football game. But it's all worth it for perks like a rock-solid jukebox that features eleven songs for a buck, and cheap drinks. It's exactly the kind of David Lynch atmosphere that modern troublemakers such as yourself are looking for come 1:35 a.m.
Readers' Choice: Pin-Up Bowl