The 20 Best St. Louis Restaurants When You've Got $20 or Less 

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  • Fork & Stix.

Fork & Stix
549 Rosedale Avenue, 314-863-5572
It happens every damn time. You walk into Fork & Stix, swearing up and down that just this once you will break tradition and order something besides the khao soi. Clearly, the restaurant does other dishes well. The som tum papaya salad is best in class, as is the pad see ew, and the scent of sizzling grilled pork sausages is enough to make you almost go for it. But then you sit down and see the name of that glorious, chile-slicked yellow curry soup staring at you from the menu, and you simply cannot bear to leave without a taste. Fork & Stix's khao soi is the northern Thai version of Grandma's chicken soup — a dish so perfect, so satisfying, it's impossible not to order. Ribbons of egg noodles and tender chicken bob in the luxurious curry with pickled mustard greens and red onions. It's like a heated blanket for the spirit, one you want to wrap yourself in and never leave. How could you ever order anything else? The answer is simple: Get it, and then get everything else, too.

Mac's Local Eats. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mac's Local Eats.

Mac's Local Eats
1225 Tamm Avenue, 314-479-8155
If you ever talk to Chris "Mac" McKenzie about the food at Mac's Local Eats, don't expect him to begin that conversation with how he seasons his beef or what kind of cheese he uses. No, for McKenzie, you can't even begin to discuss Mac's without a lengthy chat about the most important ingredient: the animal. Less a simple burger place than a meditation on sustainable, humanely raised meat that happens to be embedded within a low-key Dogtown bar, Mac's serves only the best, local proteins that McKenzie himself can personally vouch for. For him, it's not just a matter of better quality — although it undoubtedly is — but also a matter of respect for the animal who gave its life to feed us. And what respect he shows it: The juicy, griddled diner-style burgers at Mac's ooze with cheese, fat and flavor, the result of McKenzie dry-aging an entire cow and then using every last bit of it for his ground beef. There's no secret sauce or seasoning blend — just salt, pepper, a quick sear and the most important ingredient of all: love.

Grace Meat + Three. - MABEL SUEN
  • Grace Meat + Three.

Grace Meat + Three
4270 Manchester Avenue, 314-533-2700
A glance of the menu of good ol' country cooking at Grace Meat + Three might lead you to believe that chef and owner Rick Lewis cut his teeth in the kitchen of a homestyle cafeteria — not in some of the city's finest white-tablecloth establishments. However, when you taste Lewis' cooking, you quickly realize that behind his self-described "blue-collar" dishes lie the refinement and skill of a great culinary talent. Grace is Lewis' third effort as the head of the kitchen. At his first, Quincy Street Bistro, he transformed his in-laws' simple bar and grill into a bastion of thoughtful comfort fare bolstered by the techniques he'd picked up in fine-dining. He left the south-city spot to open Southern, where he perfected the art of down-home Southern favorites in addition to the signature Nashville-style hot chicken. Grace represents the best of both those concepts: A marriage of haute blue-plate specials and down-South after-church fare wrapped in bacon and sopped up with a biscuit. Grace has solidified Lewis' reputation as the city's King of Comfort — and indeed, eating good has never tasted so regal.

Kounter Kulture. - MABEL SUEN
  • Kounter Kulture.

Kounter Kulture
3825 Watson Road, 314-781-4344
Kounter Kulture was supposed to be a T-shirt company, not a food concept. In fact, the only reason co-owners Christine Meyer and Michael Miller started selling things to eat in the first place was to accompany their culinary-themed shirts at the Tower Grove Farmers Market. However, once people got a taste of their exciting, modern-fusion cuisine, the food side of the business completely overtook the wearable product line. As the shirts fell into the background, their booth space transitioned into a platform for their hyper-local, fermentation-focused prepared foods, which then evolved into pop-up dinners and catering events. The next thing they knew, the pair were planting roots in Lindenwood Park as a takeout-oriented brick-and-mortar spot, giving a permanent home to their Asian-inspired cuisine. It's no wonder Meyer and Miller's food has proven so popular. The pair have revolutionized what we think of as the fusion genre, with delectable dishes like steamed buns, Japanese-style savory pancakes and takes on everything from classic Thai to Korean to Cajun — sometimes a mix of all of the above. These days, Kounter Kulture would have no trouble selling those tees; anyone who has eaten their food would wear one as a badge of honor.

click to enlarge BEAST Craft BBQ. - MABEL SUEN
  • BEAST Craft BBQ.

20 S Belt West, Belleville, Illinois; 618-257-9000
Even before pitmaster David Sandusky changed over the meats he was using to the highest quality, sustainable product available, his smokehouse BEAST Craft BBQ was the best in the area. Now that BEAST is serving up the choicest pork and beef you can find, it just may be the best in the entire region. The secret to Sandusky's recent success — in addition to his unwavering quest to be the top pitmaster in the country — is the competition-quality Duroc pork he's procured from Compart Farms. It's so magnificent, one taste will make it impossible to look at meat the same way again. The belly is the best judge of an animal's character, and here its rose-colored flesh is so well-marbled it's like eating pork butter. Sandusky is wise not to overly manipulate this perfect meat, letting salt, pepper, smoke and time do the work and allowing the pork to speak for itself. And boy does it scream from the highest mountaintop. The beef does as well. Sandusky uses Wagyu beef for his brisket, which results in a luscious piece of meat that, when cooked low and slow, breaks down to the point of almost being spreadable. That he's found a way to improve upon what was already perfection is emblematic of Sandusky's ambitious, always-hungry disposition. Could there be any bigger news than that he'll be opening his second location in St. Louis this year? We're already salivating.

Seoul Taco. - MICAH USHER
  • Seoul Taco.

Seoul Taco
Multiple locations, including 6665 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-863-1148
On Seoul Taco's first day of business, David Choi wasn't even able to get the window fully open before a line of 50 people had gathered for a taste of his Korean-fusion food. A lot has changed since that Friday night almost seven years ago. Choi's Seoul Taco brand has gone from a food-truck-festival curiosity to an anchor of the city's roving culinary scene. It's become a brick-and-mortar storefront and has even expanded out of St. Louis to locations throughout the bi-state area, including Chicago. However, one thing has not changed since that fateful opening day: the number of people clamoring for the opportunity to eat Choi's Korean-Mexican specialties. His quesadilla is legendary, a gooey mix of rich cheese, spicy sauces and succulent Korean-style barbecue beef, and his kimchi fried-rice burrito stuffed with spicy pork, beef, chicken or tofu is a master class in mixing genres. Choi is used to the crowds these days, but we'll never get used to how good a simple bulgogi-stuffed taco can be.

Pappy's Smokehouse. - MONICA MILEUR
  • Pappy's Smokehouse.

Pappy's Smokehouse
3106 Olive Street, 314-535-4340
You have to hand it to Pappy's Smokehouse: Ten years on, in a field that grows increasingly crowded by the week, the beloved Midtown smokehouse is still doing its thing at a level that places it at the top of the heap. While lesser restaurants might rest on their laurels — and still pack them in on legacy and name recognition alone — Pappy's continues to do what put it on the map in the first place: serve up the best ribs you'll have the pleasure of eating anywhere in the city. Its Memphis-style dry-rubbed beauties are perfection of the form: infused with gentle wood smoke; sweet, peppery and caramelized on the outside with that perfect chewy texture beneath it. They're so juicy, you wonder how something cooked so long can remain so succulent. You'll also wonder if reaching for the sauce (no matter how mouth-watering it is) is really necessary. Though others existed before it, Pappy's is the undisputed catalyst for St. Louis' rise as a barbecue city, and it continues to remind us why with every passing year.

Big Baby Q. - MABEL SUEN
  • Big Baby Q.

Big Baby Q
11658 Dorsett Road, Maryland Heights; 314-801-8888
Many years ago, Bennie Welch tried to call his son Ben for some advice, but the younger Welch missed the call. Bennie was hosting a dinner party and wanted to smoke a brisket, but he needed some tips from his son, a Johnson & Wales-educated chef. They didn't connect until after the party, a call that consisted mostly of Ben telling his dad everything he should have done differently. That conversation inspired Ben to start smoking meat, a hobby that turned first into a passion and now into his calling card at Big Baby Q and Smokehouse, the wonderful Maryland Heights smokehouse where he is turning out some of the city's best barbecue. Smoked over oak and cherry woods, all of his meats are outstanding, but his signature is the brisket. Cooked at a consistent 225 degrees for fourteen hours, the exterior develops a thick, black-peppery bark that encases juicy, marbled meat that pulls apart with only the mention of a fork. Thank goodness his dad, who is also his business partner in Big Baby Q, is never far from the counter. Seeing his son slice the succulent meat is the best education anyone could get on smoking a brisket — and Bennie Welch never has to worry about him not picking up the call.

Guerrilla Street Food. - KELLY GLUECK
  • Guerrilla Street Food.

Guerrilla Street Food Multiple locations including 3559 Arsenal Street, 314-529-1328
At first, Brian Hardesty and Joel Crespo were just two friends connecting over a number of shared passions — skateboarding, comics, science-fiction. However, as their mutual love of food turned into hours-long conversations on everything from cooking to gardening to various culinary scenes around the country, they realized that this might not just be grounds for a good friendship — it could be the basis of a business. That business, Guerrilla Street Food, launched in 2010 as a modern Filipino-inspired food truck. In the years that have followed, it has not only exposed St. Louis to a vibrant culinary tradition but has also made us realize just how much is possible, even in a humble format. Guerrilla Street Food's thoughtful, innovative food continually ranks at the top of what's available in town and is always thrilling and innovative. And though it respects tradition, it is not bound by what has already been done. Instead, it represents a contemporary taste of what is possible with Filipino flavors and ingredients. No longer just a food truck, Guerrilla Street Food is on a tear with a slate of brick-and-mortar openings. If any brand deserves to conquer the world, this is it.

  • Lona's Lil Eats.

Lona's Lil Eats
2199 California Avenue, 314-925-8938
This year, Lona Luo was named a semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, an honor that sent delighted shockwaves through the city's diners, and through Lona herself. That Lona's Lil Eats, the humble, fast-casual restaurant she owns with her husband Pierce Powers, was being talked of in the same breath as some of the country's top restaurants seemed unlikely — so much so that, at first, Luo did not fully understand just how big of an honor it was. For anyone who has eaten at this Fox Park gem, however, the news made perfect sense. Since opening their storefront in the autumn of 2014 (they previously had a stall in the Soulard Farmers Market), Luo and Powers have been serving Asian-inflected cuisine that is unlike anything the city, and really most of the country, has ever tasted. Luo draws upon her background growing up in a small village in southwestern China, closer to Laos than Beijing. Her mother is Thai, and her father from a small tribe called the Luo Luo with a vibrant barbecue culture. Her food is not tied to any one particular genre, but contains elements of all these influences. It results in powerful flavor combinations of sauces, grilled meats and vegetables, all served simply in wraps or on a platter. Luo proves that riveting flavors are not just the provenance of high-end restaurants. They can belong to anyone who is a great chef — and she is undoubtedly just that.


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