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

Frankly on Cherokee.

MABEL SUEN

Frankly on Cherokee.

Great food doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. These 20 St. Louis restaurants, chosen by RFT food critic Cheryl Baehr, are the best in town when you want to spend $20 or less per person. Please see our list of the 10 Best Restaurants in St. Louis, 20 Can't-Miss Spots for St. Louis Food Lovers and our Readers' Choice awards for much, much more.

Frankly on Cherokee
2744 Cherokee Street, 314-325-3013
A stroll past its storefront might make you think that Frankly on Cherokee is a casual sausage shop — and it is. However, beneath that low-key veneer lies a bona-fide gourmet restaurant with the flavors and ethos of white-tablecloth dining. How could it not? Though chef Bill Cawthon has chosen sausages as his vehicle for culinary creativity, his background is decidedly more upscale. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Cawthon worked at top restaurants in both New York and Los Angeles before returning to his native St. Louis. His tenure in higher-end dining did not end when he came to town: He landed in the kitchens of both Gerard Craft and Bill Cardwell before taking a chance and branching out on his own with the Frankly Sausages food truck and eventually a brick-and-mortar spot on Cherokee Street. You can see elements of that pedigree in Cawthon's thoughtful offerings, whether it's a simple, flawlessly executed bratwurst or one of his more exotic sausages, like rabbit or lamb. Perhaps the chef's touch shines brightest, though, on Cawthon's French fries, the product of an arduous, multi-step process. On their own, they may be the city's best fries, but once covered in funky molten raclette cheese, they may be one of the city's best dishes — at any price point.

J's Pitaria. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • J's Pitaria.

J's Pitaria
5003 Gravois Avenue, 314-339-5319
If your idea of pita is the Middle Eastern flatbread used for holding shawarma or dipping into hummus, J's Pitaria will shatter your preconceptions. Out of this tiny Bevo Mill neighborhood storefront, owner Zamir Jahic serves up outstanding Bosnian-style stuffed and rolled pitas that have more in common with baklava than flatbread. Layers of buttery pastry are so thin they're nearly translucent — but don't let their delicate texture fool you. These flaky layers stand up to a variety of overstuffed fillings, including housemade kajmak, a gooey Balkan cheese that is like a cross between feta and boursin. Ground beef and potato, zucchini and cheese and a delightful apple-filled version are also on display, making it difficult to zero in on one. Don't worry. Jahic offers these rolled beauties by the piece or by the pound so you can mix, match or get one as an accompaniment to the restaurant's döner kebab. Jahic and his wife traveled to Germany to learn the art of hand-stacking vertically roasted meat, and their efforts paid off in one of the city's best versions of the popular Balkan street food. They also flew in their favorite pita-maker from Bosnia to make sure they got that part of the restaurant right, too. It may seem like a lot of trouble for a fast-casual, grab-and-go spot, but it pays off in one of the city's best culinary values.

Union Loafers. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Union Loafers.

Union Loafers
1629 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-833-6111
Even before it opened in Botanical Heights two and a half years ago, Union Loafers was almost guaranteed to have the city's best bread. After all, co-owner and head baker Ted Wilson is a bread-making genius who studied under one of the best in the country at the esteemed Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, then made a name for himself in St. Louis as the person responsible for the Good Pie's legendary pizza dough. Sure enough, you can walk into Union Loafers, order a loaf of "Light and Mild" and be filled with bliss. However, the fact that this is only half the Union Loafers story says a lot about just how good the rest of the food is. The café menu is simple — a ham-and-cheddar sandwich, chicken-and-rice soup, even a humble PB&J — but it's the best version of simple food you will ever have in your life. Then there is what may be the best salad known to man, the "Little Gem," a mix of lettuces, herbs, breadcrumbs and buttermilk dressing that is so transcendent, you'll wake up in the middle of the night craving it. Indeed, once you've ordered it, this salad will be the first thing that comes to mind any time someone mentions Union Loafers. At the city's best bread shop. This doesn't just say a lot about the "Little Gem"; it speaks volumes to just how much care Wilson and company put into everything they do.

Cate Zone Chinese Cafe. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Cate Zone Chinese Cafe.

Cate Zone Chinese Cafe
8148 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-738-9923
The "Hot Crisp Fish" at Cate Zone is one of those defining dishes that make you fall in love with a restaurant the second it hits your table. You don't even have to take a bite to understand how good it is going to be. Whole peppers the color of rubies accompany hunks of panko-breaded whitefish, staining the breadcrumbs bright orange. By sight, they're intimidating, making you think that the dish will be too hot to enjoy, but then you take a bite and realize that the depth and layers of flavor surpass the heat. Sichuan peppercorns — all five types — speckle the vibrant red chiles coating your mouth with a menthol tingle. The chiles and peppercorns cut through the lightly oily breading and the fish's buttery flesh with enough heat to make you sweat, but not so much that you'll have to change your shirt. And it's just one of the show-stopping offerings at this modern Chinese restaurant in the middle of University City's Chinatown strip. The cumin lamb is dazzling, the "Honey Crisp Sweet Potatoes" a majestic, cotton candy-like concoction of spun sugar and the Korean cold noodle soup so funky with bean curd it could've been made by George Clinton. They're just a few of the ways the outstanding Cate Zone is opening American eyes to a new type of Chinese food — and showing us how much we've been missing.

click to enlarge Southern. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Southern.

Southern
3108 Olive Street, 314-531-4668
As you walk up to Southern, the siren scent of smoke wafts from adjacent sister restaurant Pappy's Smokehouse, making you question whether you've made the right choice for your meal. But as soon as your order of searing Nashville-style hot chicken arrives at your table, glistening with fryer grease and ruby-red chile oil, you'll know you made a good decision. Southern is the undisputed champion of the hot-chicken genre in St. Louis — if not anywhere (shhh, don't tell the folks in Nashville), a reputation solidified by its impossibly juicy, so hot it will make you hiccup, deep-fried bird. It's so good it's almost masochistic — the heat stings your throat and makes your eyes water, but the chicken is so damn flavorful you don't want to stop. And it's only part of Southern's story. Catfish, biscuits, mac-and-cheese casserole and a BLT with bacon so thick it could be called a ham steak make this wonderful Midtown restaurant so much more than just a hot-chicken restaurant, an impressive feat considering just how good its calling card is.

Blk Mkt Eats. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Blk Mkt Eats.

Blk Mkt Eats
9 South Vandeventer Avenue, 314-391-5100
Kati Fahrney and Ron Turigliatto, the co-owners and culinary masterminds behind Blk Mkt Eats, are teachers by trade, not chefs or restaurateurs. However, their wonderful fusion concept is schooling us all in what is possible with the fast-casual dining model. The cousins and business partners left their education careers on a mission to bring St. Louis the sort of fresh, healthy and affordable food that has been popular on the coasts for some time now, namely the sushi burrito — and judging by how popular the restaurant has become, they have tapped into something special. The burrito is the restaurant's calling card: a large wrap held together by nori and sticky rice, then filled to order with a kaleidoscope of fresh vegetables, seafood and other accoutrements. Like the industry-defining Chipotle, though, Blk Mkt Eats doesn't limit guests to the burrito format. You can instead opt or a rice bowl, salad or "nachos" made from wontons as your canvas for shockingly fresh toppings that include Scandinavian cured salmon, crispy shrimp tempura and tuna poke so vibrant it looks like cubes of watermelon. There is almost always a line to the door, and sometimes out of it, during lunch service. However, the speed and skill by which the folks on the line prepare this outstanding food is something to behold — it's almost as impressive as the food.

click to enlarge Squatter's Cafe. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Squatter's Cafe.

Squatter's Café
3524 Washington Avenue, 314-925-7556
Squatter's Café is not the restaurant Rob Connoley was supposed to open. When the acclaimed chef returned to his hometown from New Mexico nearly two years ago, he had much different plans than a daytime café — namely a high-end, foraging-inspired tasting menu concept called Bulrush. But while developing the idea of Bulrush was easy, securing the right building has proven much harder, leaving Connoley a chef without a restaurant or outlet for culinary expression. Weary of working for others and doing Bulrush pop-ups, Connoley decided late last fall to go in another direction, seizing upon an opportunity to take over the café in KDHX's Grand Center building. In form, Squatters Café could not be more different than Bulrush, with a fast-casual, breakfast and lunch-only format. However, underneath the façade exists the ethos that informs all of Connoley's cooking: a commitment to hyper-local, seasonal and sometimes foraged ingredients, from-scratch cooking and a fierce no-waste policy. It results in thoughtful, substantive food you can feel good about eating, but this is not simply a cerebral experience. Connoley and his sous chef Justin Bell are damn good cooks, reimagining classic dishes like biscuits and gravy, sweet potato hash or yogurt and granola into mouth-watering, modern compositions. Squatter's may not have been Connoley's first choice, but selfishly, we can't help but be happy things didn't work out as planned.

click to enlarge Yolklore. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Yolklore.

Yolklore
8958 Watson Road, Crestwood; 314-270-8538
A place like Yolklore should not exist in today's over-extended, meal-skipping culture — which is why it's so important that it does. Located in a nondescript Crestwood strip mall, the almost-hidden storefront has been transformed into a bright daytime eatery with thoughtful, chef-driven dishes that tempt us to throw our busy schedules out the window. But what's so lovely about Yolklore is that you don't have to do that: Owners Mary and John Bogacki have figured out a way to give us the fresh, from-scratch breakfast specialties we associate with a lingering weekend meal at the speed you'd get from a fast-food restaurant. It seems like an impossible feat, considering that everything is made to order, but they do it and do it well, proving that not everything that comes to you speedily has to be from a box. But if you want to linger, you can do so in Yolklore's charming café area with a cup of coffee, the paper and the eatery's signature dish, the "Nest Egg," an elegant breakfast entrée of local eggs, cheese, bacon, pickled onions and preserved lemon stuffed into a flaky biscuit crust. Or you could go classic with biscuits and gravy, pancakes or an elegant riff on a slinger — and get it without even getting out of your car. Yes, Yolklore has a drive-thru, too. And you thought there was no such thing as thoughtful fast food.

Nudo House. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Nudo House.

Nudo House
11423 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-274-8046
If it seems like years passed between the time Qui Tran and Marie-Anne Velasco announced they were joining forces for a ramen restaurant and Nudo House opening its doors, it's because they did — five of them, to be precise. During that time, the pair traversed the country in search of the perfect ramen, then brought that knowledge back to their own kitchens, where they improved upon that perfection. Their quest led them to Los Angeles, where they were introduced to Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura, one of Japan's "Four Ramen Devas" (a "deva" being a deity). Nakamura was so impressed that he agreed to mentor Tran and Velasco, even coming to St. Louis to help them develop their recipes. Upon leaving town, he made a prescient prediction, assuring the pair they would undoubtedly make it. How could they not? Tran and Velasco are producing the best ramen in town — if not some of the best in the country — out of a strip mall in Creve Coeur. Classic tonkatsu seems to distill the entire essence of pork into one spoonful of broth, while the "Hebrew Hammer" coats the mouth with rich, schmaltzy chicken flavor. Even the "Shroomed Out" vegetarian broth is shocking in how much flavor and body it can derive without the use of animal fat. It may have taken a painfully long time for Tran and Velasco to deem Nudo House ready for business, but one bite of its best-in-class ramen proves it was well worth the wait.

Gioia's Deli. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Gioia's Deli.

Gioia's Deli
1934 Macklind Avenue, 314-776-9410
More than a century ago, an Italian immigrant named Charlie Gioia landed in St. Louis' Hill neighborhood with little to his name but an old family recipe for salam di testa. With that as his secret weapon, he opened Gioia's Deli as a grocery store, but garnered so much attention for what came to be known as "hot salami" that it would become his defining legacy, turning his humble store into one of the country's best sandwich shops. These days, members of the Donley family are the steward of his secret recipe, cranking out massive batches of the hot salami in the same room and with the exact same process that Mr. Gioia used all those years ago. And it's no wonder they haven't changed a thing — how could you improve on something so wonderful? The secret blend of pork-head meat, beef and seasoning packs a rich, black-peppery punch, though that hint of spice is not what gives the salami its name. The "hot" represents the fact that the meat is boiled and then never allowed to cool. It's sliced to order, steaming enough to melt its Provel topping. Piled onto crusty Italian bread, it's one of those simple pleasures that is anything but — it's a taste of history.

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