In our 40 years in St. Louis, we've eaten a lot of marvelous things — but who needs a trip down memory lane when the food scene is better than it's ever been? In honor of our four decades in St. Louis, food critic Cheryl Baehr has compiled a list of the 40 dishes she can't stop dreaming about right now. Read it and salivate.
Best Rendition of an STL Standard
Pork Steak at Beast Craft BBQ
20 South Belt West, Belleville, Illinois; 618-257-9000
By this point, David Sandusky must be used to the accolades. Since opening his Belleville barbecue spot in 2015, the pitmaster has developed a reputation as one of the area's premier purveyors of smoked meats thanks to his "all killer no filler" insistence on using the best quality products around. Sandusky would be famous for his brisket and ribs alone, but Beast's signature item, the pork steak, is what has earned him a legion of devoted fans. Though most St. Louisans are most familiar with the city's signature barbecue dish as a backyard grill staple, cut thin and covered with Maull's, Sandusky has upped the ante. His version is as thick as a Delmonico cut ribeye, yet so fork-tender you'll be laughed out of the restaurant if you dare to ask for a knife. Spice rub and rendered fat form a glaze that glistens over the massive hunk of meat, giving it a subtle sweetness that amplifies the pork's natural flavor. Forget DIY — this is one time when you should leave backyard cooking to the master.
Seafood Platter at Mariscos el Gato
2818 Cherokee Street, 314-449-1220
If the seafood platter at Mariscos el Gato makes you leap to your feet and erupt into applause, then you are completely normal. The signature dish at this Cherokee Street temple to seafood is so impressive, you can't help but respond with some audible mix of shock and awe. The hefty price tag might result in sticker shock, but once you realize what all is included, it becomes clear that this is, in fact, a steal. The platter includes a four-pound lobster, stuffed with what seems like a quarter of the Pacific's bounty, two different types of whole fried fish, spicy shrimp, a bowl of creamy seafood stew, ceviche, octopus cocktail and another whole fried fish stuffed with shrimp. The scene looks less like a dinner out on the town and more like an offering to Neptune — one that (do not doubt your server) will easily feed a table of six. So gather your friends, take a seat around one of the restaurant's rustic tables, and let the sounds of Cherokee Street fade away as you drift off to thoughts of a beach barbecue on the Sea of Cortez. It's a transportive feast.
Best Use of Butter
Salted Caramel Croissant at Pint Size Bakery & Coffee
3133 Watson Road, 314-645-7142
The line out the front door at Pint Size Bakery & Coffee on Saturday around 9:30 a.m. can mean only one thing: The croissants are coming. Available just one day of the week, the bakery's signature salted caramel croissants are one of the hottest delicacies in town, for good reason. These butter-soaked beauties, served fresh from the oven, are a master class in balancing sweet and savory. The salted caramel goodies are fashioned into a disc, allowing each layer to soak up the sugary butter concoction like a sponge. On the outside, they are flaky and golden brown; the inside is almost creamy and melts on the tongue like a pat of tempered butter. Owners Christy Augustin and Nancy Boehm say they only offer the treats once a week because they are so labor-intensive, but we suspect there's a different reason: If they were available every day, no one would be able to get anything done. We'd all be standing in line, waiting to gorge ourselves on this most perfect pastry.
Filet Bearnaise at Sidney Street Cafe
2000 Sidney Street, 314-771-5777
Food trends come and go, but even as fusion becomes fried chicken becomes ramen, one thing has stayed the same in St. Louis: the sheer excellence of Sidney Street Cafe under chef Kevin Nashan. His Benton Park restaurant is romantic without being stuffy, elegant without being formal — and the food can, as of May, deservedly boast a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest. Definitely something to note! But we had Sidney Street on repeat even before the Beard folk weighed in for an entirely personal, largely selfish reason: the filet bearnaise. A perfect cut of steak stuffed with lobster, smothered in a terrific tarragon-scented bearnaise and served atop a puree of potatoes, it's the kind of perfectly balanced, easily accessible entree that never goes out of style. Sure, Nashan is offering far more interesting dishes that change with the seasons, salads that take advantage of the latest Missouri produce and a roster of insanely tempting starters. But there's a reason he never takes the filet bearnaise off the menu: We wouldn't let him.
Best Use of Cheese
Cheese Pide at Balkan Treat Box
If the words "boat full of cheese" mean nothing to you, clearly you've never eaten at Balkan Treat Box. From their bright red and blue food truck, chef Loryn Nalic and her husband Edo Nalic are creating some of the city's best Bosnian and Balkan cuisine, and the cheese pide may just be their most delectable offering. The Nalics outfitted their truck with a wood-fired oven so that they can bake fresh Turkish flatbread practically to order. That bread, shaped like a hollowed-out canoe and kissed with wood char, is then filled with a mild, white Bosnian cheese that has the taste of stracciatella with the texture of mozzarella or provolone. The cheese oozes into every one of the flatbread's nooks and crannies and forms about an inch-thick layer of molten goodness that melds with the bread so that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The Nalics serve this wonder with ajvar, a Bosnian mild red pepper condiment; the effect is a Balkan version of cheese garlic bread dipped in marinara. This is one boat you'd like to sink — your teeth into, that is.
Best Use of Fat
Brisket at Salt + Smoke
6525 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-727-0200
When you order the brisket at Salt + Smoke, your server will ask what style you want, as if there is really a choice. Burnt end, lean — sure, you can order your beef either way and be happy, but why would you settle for mere happiness when you could have a religious experience? That's what happens when you bite into a slice of Salt + Smoke's fatty brisket, a piece of barbecue so perfect, it enraptures you in a meat-trance for the entirety of your meal. The flesh takes on the texture of tempered butter, so silken you can almost spread it on a roll like marrow. Owner Tom Schmidt and his team of pitmasters don't fuss with a complicated rub that would take away from the pure beef flavor. This is salt, smoke and fat — exactly the way you want it.
Best Fusion Dish
Tlayuda at Nixta
1621 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-899-9000
Chefs Ben Poremba and Tello Carreon came up with the idea for Nixta when they were playing around in the kitchen of Poremba's fine-dining flagship, Elaia. Though they were born worlds apart — Poremba in Israel, Carreon in Mexico — the pair bonded over a shared love of food that, when they really thought about it, was not all that different. That discovery led Carreon to deem Mexico the "American Mediterranean," an idea that has informed his cooking at their now nationally acclaimed Nixta. As the executive chef under restaurateur Poremba, Carreon interprets Mexican classics with subtle nods to the Mediterranean flavors he so often used as a chef at Elaia. This is not overtly fusion-style cooking. Instead, you'll see hints of flavors not often associated with Mexican cuisine in traditional Latin dishes where Carreon has found a connection. Nowhere is that exemplified better than on the tlayuda, an open-face tortilla dish that's a contender for the very best thing to eat in St. Louis at this moment. Carreon begins with a paper-thin, crispy tortilla for a base, then covers it in a puree of carrots, coriander, guajillo and achiote peppers and pomegranate molasses. This alone is delectable, but Carreon does not stop there, topping the puree with luscious burrata, fresh herbs and pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds. It's as much Middle Eastern as it is Mexican, but don't waste time parsing those differences. Just enjoy this melting pot of flavor.
Amber Cake at Nathaniel Reid Bakery
11243 Manchester Road, Kirkwood; 314-858-1019
We've all been there: You grab what looks like a work of edible art off the buffet at a fancy hotel brunch and dig in, only to be shocked at the disconnect between how the dessert tastes and how it looks. Rarely are the prettiest desserts the tastiest — unless they come from the talented hands of acclaimed pastry chef Nathaniel Reid. At his namesake Kirkwood bakeshop, Reid crafts an array of desserts that seem tailor-made for the covers of food magazines without ever sacrificing taste. His amber cake, which in fact has been featured in a prestigious national pastry magazine, is his best example of how something can taste as good as it looks. A shiny dome of glistening salted caramel mousse is gilded with pecan caramel, then placed atop a shortbread bed that's like a nutty brown buttery biscuit. Caramelized pecans encircle the shortbread, with a single flake of edible gold leaf crowning the masterpiece. It's a feast for the eyes, indeed, but what makes the amber cake so special is that it looks as good as — nay, even better than — it tastes.
Best Way to Carb Out
"Light and Mild" at Union Loafers
1629 Tower Grove Avenue, 314-833-6111
Union Loafers serves some of the best wood-fired pizza you can get in town. It has sandwiches that show all the beauty of a simple ham and cheese, soups that will make you consider licking your bowl and salads that are positively joyful. Yet in the midst of all this culinary greatness, the soul of the restaurant is contained in its simplest item: a loaf of bread. Since opening in Botanical Heights in 2015, Union Loafers has set the standard for bread in St. Louis, a fact that is not all that shocking considering that its baker, Ted Wilson, honed his craft at the acclaimed Sullivan Street Bakery in New York. There, Wilson discovered a passion for naturally fermented breads that he carried with him back to St. Louis as the pizzaiolo at Mike Randolph's the Good Pie. There, he threw his passion for baking into making the restaurant's outstanding pizza dough. He also met his partner, Sean Netzer, and the two of them set out on a five-year journey to open a simple café anchored by the best bread the city had ever seen. Though it sells several varieties, Union Loafers' signature bread is the "Light and Mild," a rustic loaf of wheat, with a hearty dark crust that yields to a fluffy interior taking its subtle tang from the natural fermentation process. You can get it as a sandwich or alongside a cup of soup, but bread this beautiful needs nothing to enhance it. It's perfect as it is.
Brisket Wrap at Lona's Lil Eats
2199 California Avenue, 314-925-1888
Some of the best brisket in town comes from the hands of a woman whose upbringing was steeped in hill country barbecue culture — but it has nothing to do with the hill country of Texas. Growing up in a remote corner of southwestern China, Lona Lao began to cook out of both passion and necessity, learning to incorporate the kaleidoscopic flavors of nearby Laos, Burma and Thailand into the grilled meats of her village. That skill is on display at the wildly successful Lona's Lil Eats, which she runs with her husband Pierce Powers in Fox Park. Lao and Powers first made a name for themselves selling dumplings out of a stall at the Soulard Market, parlaying that recognition into their brick-and-mortar spot, which regularly has a line out the door during lunch. Loyal patrons gather for any number of dishes — those dumplings, spicy eggplant, whole fish, tofu — though the restaurant's biggest draw is its unique giant rice paper wrap, a stretchy translucent shell that can be stuffed to the brim with any number of ingredients. If you're lucky enough to be there when Lao is serving her special brisket, you're in for a treat. Succulent, char-kissed meat could make even the most seasoned pitmaster shed tears of joy. Paired with her smoked vinaigrette in a wrap, it's transcendent. Forget traditional barbecue; this is brisket in all of its glory.
Best Use of Avocado
Avocado Smoothie at Vietnam Style
6100 Delmar Boulevard, 314-405-8438
As a child in Ho Chi Minh City, VietNam Style's Thao Truong worked in her mother's restaurant, where she was tasked with gathering items for the day's menu. Her mom was a perfectionist, and if something wasn't up to her impossibly high standards (which was most of the time), Truong was sent back to the market until she got it right. That experience made the young restaurateur an expert not only at selecting the best avocados around; it also instilled in her a drive to strive for perfection. Both traits come in handy in the making of her avocado smoothie. At VietNam Style, Truong shows off her skills for making the rich, creamy treat, beginning with avocados at the peak of their ripeness. She blends them with sweetened condensed milk and just a hint of vanilla, which combine with the green fruit to form a sweet, but not too sweet, concoction that has the texture of plush velvet. A dollop of whipped cream and some fresh mint sprigs cap off this celebration of the sweet side of what is all too often considered a savory fruit. Sure, guacamole is great, but a smoothie just might be the avocado's ideal form.
Best Veggie Pizza
White Pizza with Spinach and Artichokes at Pizza Head
3196 South Grand Boulevard, 314-266-5400
At Pizzeoli, Scott Sandler proved he is the master of white-sauced Neapolitan-style pizza with his simple yet glorious "Bianca." At his punk-rock, New York-style joint Pizza Head, he may have improved upon that perfection. The crust at Sandler's South Grand fast-casual pizzeria could bring a tear to a Manhattanite's eye — thin in the middle, spongy on the outside and cut into meal-sized triangles that are best enjoyed folded lengthwise, it's a terrific representation of the form. That crust serves as an excellent base for his "white" pie, which subs out tomato sauce for a creamy ricotta and olive oil concoction that's infused with what tastes like an entire clove of garlic. You can stop there, but when you add fresh spinach and artichokes to the party, the result is a genius hybrid of pizza and spinach artichoke dip that will make you wonder why the world decided that tortilla chips were the way to go. The bad news about this masterpiece is that, unlike Pizza Head's red-sauced offerings, the white pizza is only available as a whole twenty-inch pie that is so large you'll be enjoying the leftovers for days. The good news is that it's only available as a twenty-inch pie. Wait, was that supposed to be bad news?
Singapore Mei Fun at Bek Hee
10200 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-426-4773
Driving down this nondescript section of Page Avenue, you might assume that Bek Hee is just one more of the numerous Americanized chop suey joints that populate the area. You'd be right ... sort of. At this humble north-county shack, you can indeed get everything from sweet and sour chicken to a St. Paul sandwich, but what you might never suspect is that the restaurant is an unexpected gem, a secret hot bed of delicious cuisine from the owners' native Sha County in China. When the Lin family took over Bek Hee in 2015, they knew they would have to keep the American dishes to pay the bills, but their passion for the traditional food of their culture prompted them to pepper the menu with specialties from their homeland as well. One of these is the Singapore mei fun, a super-sized platter of thin rice noodles that glisten with a fiery yellow curry. The Lins throw everything into this delicious concoction — chicken, shrimp, beef, pork, onions, bok choy — resulting in a family-sized feast that will leave you convinced you are in the presence of culinary greatness in spite of the humble digs. And what's even better, the Lins give you such a large portion, you can work your biceps as you haul the takeout box back to feed the entire family. It's a win-win.
Soup Dumplings at Private Kitchen
8106 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-989-0283
You know a dish has to be good when demand for it necessitates its own restaurant — and that is exactly what's happened with Private Kitchen's soup dumplings. The restaurant, a celebration of just how elegant authentic Chinese cuisine can be, is a parade of one delicious dish after another, and so the very fact that the soup dumplings stand out is no small feat. A bite into one of these plump beauties reveals why, though you'll want to make sure it's a very small, careful bite: When pierced, the dumplings spill out a rich, pork-laden broth. It's so delectable, you might want to consider asking for a straw to suck up every last drop. Tender steamed pork takes up the remainder of the dumpling's real estate. Until this point, the only thing that has kept these dumplings from flying off the shelves is just how difficult it can be to dine at Private Kitchen. The upscale, reservations-only concept is not the sort of place you can just drop into and order a massive to-go order. But owner Lawrence Chen is about to take away the only barrier that's saved us from ourselves. He recently took over the storefront adjacent to Private Kitchen and is converting it into a casual, grab-and-go spot called St. Louis Soup Dumplings, where he will be offering several varieties of his beloved dish. Great. Now there's nothing to hold us back.
Best Use of Lobster
Maine-Style Lobster Roll at Peacemaker Lobster & Crab
1831 Sidney Street, 314-772-8858
Who would have thought that, miles from the coast in the middle of the Midwest, we'd be blessed with an outstanding example of what can be done with fresh seafood? Then again, considering that the offering in question comes from James Beard award-winning chef Kevin Nashan, we should not be surprised. At his breezy Benton Park restaurant Peacemaker Lobster & Crab, Nashan has managed to prepare lobster rolls so fresh and delicious you'll think you're at a seaside shack in Maine. Large hunks of meat can be dressed one of two ways: either as a cold, mayonnaise-based Maine version brightened by lemon zest or as a warm Connecticut-style treat dripping with butter. No matter which version you choose, the lobster will come tucked into a roll that reads like a cross between brioche and Texas toast. Nashan spent months developing the bread with the bakers at Companion. He also spent a good deal of time in Maine, not only researching the art of the lobster roll but also developing relationships with local fishermen, whose photos hang on the walls of the restaurant. His lobster roll is proof that his efforts were well spent.
Best Use of Curry
Khao Soi at Fork & Stix
549 Rosedale Avenue, 314-863-5572
If you ask any of the city's top chefs where they choose to dine on their days off, Fork & Stix is almost always at the top of the list. It's no wonder the under-the-radar northern Thai spot is the go-to for people who dedicate their lives to food: Every last dish is a symphony of color, fragrance and flavor that makes you feel like you are dining in color after eating in black and white your entire life. Nothing exemplifies that feeling better than the restaurant's signature dish, the khao soi, a yellow curry-based soup that's so flavorful, it's haunting. The warmly spiced broth teems with ribbons of tender egg noodles and large hunks of chicken (tofu is available as well), evoking the sort of chicken noodle soup your worldly grandmother would make after being inspired by a sojourn to Chiang Mai. Red onion and pickled mustard greens add a bite that cuts through the rich liquid, and crispy egg noodles give the sort of crunch you get from adding crackers to chili — an apt comparison, since there is nothing you'd rather warm yourself with on a crisp, fall evening. Take it from the experts.
Best Bread Service
Dinner Rolls at Sardella
7734 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-773-7755
When Gerard Craft opened Sardella last year, he did so with the intention of creating the sort of warm, inviting space where you could sink into a banquette and bask in elegant comfort — a counter to the hallowed dining room of his now-shuttered Niche, where you felt the need to sit up straight. Nothing embodies this new zeitgeist better than the restaurant's already legendary bread service: a serving of warm dinner rolls. These pillowy poufs are so light and airy they're almost beignets. However, for all of their delicateness, the rolls have an intense yeasty flavor that's brought out by a dusting of sea salt flakes. The rolls are always accompanied by butter, typically infused with black garlic or flavored with miso, which adds to the enjoyment. Not that you need much more of anything to be completely enraptured. No, they're not gratis, but they're worth every penny.
Best Way to Eat Guacamole
Arepas at Público
6679 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-833-5780
Last year, Mike Randolph's Público was a semi-finalist for the James Beard award for the best new restaurant in the country. The nod let the rest of the nation in on what has been apparent to the rest of us ever since biting into one of his guacamole-covered arepas: Público is a work of pure genius. Instead of serving guacamole with a side of tortilla chips as you might expect, Randolph places his guac on top of a delectable housemade arepa that is a cross between cast-iron cornbread and a traditional tortilla. It's like a griddled corn pancake, good enough to eat on its own but even better covered in mashed avocados that are enlivened with lime and cilantro. It's hard to decide which is the canvas for which: Does the arepa exist to showcase the pleasure that arises from simple, well-executed guacamole? Or does the guacamole act as a garnish to an arepa so authentic you'd think it was crafted in the home of someone's abuela? It's a good thing we don't have to concern ourselves with such matters and can instead simply dig in and enjoy a signature dish at one of the city's most acclaimed restaurants.
Best Way to Eat an Onion
Onion Rings at Twisted Tree
10701 Watson Road, Sunset Hills; 314-394-3366
For more than two decades, the Pear Tree Restaurant was a must-stop for big-city businessmen passing through the tiny town of Bevier, Missouri, on their way to the area's hunting grounds. Though it was known for its steaks, battered lobster tails and five-star service, the restaurant's signature appetizer, the onion rings, was the one dish you'd find on every table. When a fire destroyed the Pear Tree in 2012, devotees assumed the golden rings were lost forever. Today, however, they live on, together with most of the Pear Tree's menu at Twisted Tree, a celebration of all that was beloved about the lost restaurant. It's clear why the onion rings are at the top of that list. The thick rounds of sweet onions are coated in a light and flaky batter that has just a whisper of peppery heat; the onion slices are cut on the thicker side so that when they soften, they have the texture of silken flower petals. The rings come to the table so hot, the steam from the fryer still rises from the plate, cautioning you to wait to dive in even as they tempt you to risk a mouth burn all at the same time. At this Sunset Hills restaurant, Pear Tree's legacy lives on with food as good as ever — and we no longer have to drive all the way to northeast Missouri for a taste.
Best '70s Throwback
"Fondue Midwest" at the Libertine
7927 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2999
While chef Samantha Mitchell was making a name for herself as the queen of refined farm-to-table cuisine with her food truck Farmtruk, restaurateur Nick Luedde was busy solidifying his reputation for decadent, over-the-top fare. Now that Mitchell is executive chef at Luedde's the Libertine, those styles have married in a most enjoyable dish: the "Fondue Midwest." Taking as a jumping-off point the European molten cheese dish that starred in many 1970s parties, the Libertine gives it a downhome flair, subbing out hoity-toity Swiss for creamy pimento. This not only gives the dish a decidedly Southern inflection, but also a piquant pop of flavor that cuts through the creaminess. Griddled housemade bread, roasted seasonal vegetables, grilled apples and mild andouille sausage are served for dipping, though really, you might just cut to the chase and ask for a spoon to scoop it up straight from the cast-iron crock. You may not be able to get away with such behavior at a traditional Swiss fondue party, but at the Libertine, anything goes.
Best Non-St. Louis BBQ
Galbi at Wudon
1261 Castillions Arcade Plaza, 314-628-1010
If your idea of the range in barbecue styles consists of Memphis dry rub versus Carolina vinegar sauce, a trip to Wudon will be an eye-opening experience. At this west county Korean barbecue hotspot, you'll find brisket, pork belly and ribs caramelizing to perfection on tabletop grills, filling the air with the mouthwatering smoke of a backyard barbecue. Sans marinade and sauce, these meats are divine, but the restaurant's version of kalbi, or Korean marinated short ribs, is so delectable it will quash the debate over whether you should sauce your 'cue. Owners Victor and Moon Jang got the recipe for their galbi from family in Seoul that has owned a Korean barbecue restaurant for more than two decades. The reason for that staying power is evident upon first bite. Strips of beef ribs are marinated in a sweet and savory concoction made from soy, brown sugar, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, infusing it with flavor that is less sticky-sweet than other versions. The marinated beef arrives at the table raw, so you get the satisfaction of smelling the beef caramelize right under your nose. And caramelize it does — the marinade forms a crispy coating that marries the charred meat, forming a most delicious crust. In a city known for its barbecue, this is some of the best.
Hot Salami at Gioia's Deli
1934 Macklind Avenue, 314-776-9410
When Alex Donley, owner of Gioia's Deli, got the call announcing that his beloved Hill neighborhood sandwich shop was being honored with an "American Classic" award from the James Beard Foundation, he thought they'd gotten it wrong. "You know we're a sandwich shop, right?" he asked the foundation's representative, incredulous that a humble deli would be bestowed such a distinction. He should have asked a different question: "What took you so long?" For 100 years, Gioia's has been chipping away at the heart health of hungry St. Louisans with its beloved hot salami sandwich, a secret blend of pork head meat and beef that dates back to the deli's founding as a small grocery store in 1918. These days, the market is long gone and the deli is under different ownership, but one thing hasn't changed: Gioia's hot salami is hands-down the best sandwich you can get in this city. Served warm (the name refers to temperature, not to spice), the meat is like a cross between sausage and pate, spiced with a secret seasoning blend. The folks at Gioia's slice it to order, then layer it atop crusty Italian bread and garnish it with Provel cheese that gently melts the second it touches the warm meat. You can garnish it however you want, and even pair it with other meats (cream cheese and giardiniera, anyone?), but no matter how you dress it up, the hot salami is an American classic.
Best Use of Chocolate
"The Darkness" at La Patisserie Chouquette
1626 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-932-7935
Before La Patisserie Chouquette's "the Darkness" came into being, we were content calling the chocolate-chunk-studded pastry you find at any self-respecting French bakery a "chocolate croissant." Boy, were we wrong. At the elegant Botanical Heights bakery owned by pastry chef Simone Faure, "the Darkness" exists as a study in just how much chocolate can be consumed in one sitting. The answer? Quite a bit. Not content with simply adding chocolate to a plain croissant and calling it good, Faure and her assistant pastry chef Patrick Devine make "the Darkness" with not only chocolate dough but also chocolate butter to boot. They also fold in batons of bittersweet 72 percent chocolate and finish it with a chocolate drizzle and a little bit of pink Himalayan sea salt to balance it all out. The result is a luxuriously rich and flaky pastry that may be dark as night, but is still so delicious it makes us see the light.
Best Use of Spice
"Hot Crisp Fish" at Cate Zone
8148 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-738-9923
You might think something's gone wrong when you take that first bite of Cate Zone's "Hot Crisp Fish." Almost immediately, your lips begin to tingle and then your tongue, and before you know it, your entire mouth feels shockingly numb. It's not an allergic reaction. You've merely been kissed by the daring Sichuan peppercorns that are flecked throughout the platter of crispy, flour- and panko-coated whitefish. They're just one of the five different types of peppers that enliven the dish, as whole chiles, peppercorns and chile oil each reveal their nuanced flavors. It looks scary, but the "Hot Crisp Fish" is deceptively tolerable in its spice level, perhaps because the Novocain-like Sichuan peppercorns make you blissfully unaware of the level of heat assaulting your palate. More likely, however, is the fact that this entree, like just about everything at this University City hotbed of modern Chinese cuisine, is balanced, full of flavor and so addictive you won't care (much) about the burn. It's a small price to pay for enjoying an unforgettable dish from one of the city's most exciting restaurants.
Best Thing to Eat Off a Bone
Ribs at Stellar Hog
5623 Leona Street, 314-481-8448
When it opened nearly 100 years ago, Super's Bungalow had a singular mission: to serve beers to the neighbors of Holly Hills in the most unassuming way possible. The quintessential south-city tavern is still doing just that, only now, it just happens to be home to some of the best barbecue in town. This is thanks to pitmaster Alex Cupp, a veteran of Adam's Smokehouse and various country clubs around town. Cupp bought Super's a little over a year ago and, inside, opened the barbecue joint the Stellar Hog. Cupp learned from the Pappy's masters, so it's no wonder his ribs are outstanding. Rubbed with just a touch of sweet and warm-spiced seasoning, the ribs' meaty pork flavor shines through. Cupp smokes them until they are fork-tender, yet not so much as to take away the primal pleasure you get from eating meat off a bone. Perhaps the best part of enjoying these beauties is the small pool of spices and rendered pork fat that pools at the bottom of the plate, making sauce irrelevant. Actually, that's not true. The best thing about eating Ribs at the Stellar Hog inside Super's Bungalow is seeing three generations belly up to the bar as if nothing has changed — only now, they have something world-class to pair with those brews.
Beef Shish Kebab at CafE Natasha's Kabob International
3200 South Grand Boulevard, 314-771-3411
Beshid Bahrami, the late patriarch of Cafe Natasha's Kabob International, was a perfectionist when it came to food, and nowhere is that culinary tenacity better displayed than in the restaurant's beef shish kebab. After immigrating to the U.S. in the 1970s, Bahrami was dissatisfied with the taste of American lamb and decided to take matters into his own hands. For years — literally— he toiled away in the kitchen, working to perfect his recipe for a marinade that would make lamb more tolerable to his palate. He got what he wanted when it came to the lamb, but what he initially didn't realize was that he was creating the best marinade to ever grace a cut of beef. It's hard to deconstruct this delectable nectar (don't bother asking for the top-secret recipe), but its salty, garlicky and subtly sweet taste does something to the flavor of beef that transforms it from merely satisfying into the most glorious taste to grace your palate. The best part is when the marinade pools inside the kebab as it cooks, forming a little pocket that becomes encased in smoky grill char. When you bite into one of these pockets, it's a transcendent flavor burst unlike anything you've experienced. Bahrami may no longer be gracing the dining room with his wonderful presence, but his legacy lives on in one of the city's biggest culinary joys.
"Balkan Dipping Board" at Lemmons by Grbic
5800 Gravois Avenue, 314-899-9898
When Senada, Erna and Armin Grbic envisioned their restaurant Lemmons by Grbic, they knew they wanted it to be a reflection of their childhood. Born to Bosnian immigrants, the siblings inhabited two worlds growing up: the traditional Balkan culture of their family and the all-American upbringing of their peers in south city. Lemmons, by extension, fuses those two worlds by offering dishes that give an American-style inflection to traditional Bosnian specialties. One dish, however, is Bosnian through and through — because, frankly, there's no way to improve upon the original. Called the "Balkan Dipping Board," this wonderful appetizer consists of ustipci, or fried dough fritters that are round like a hush puppy but have the fluffy texture of a beignet. Chef Senada Grbic pairs the ustipci with three condiments: feta butter, a red pepper tapenade called ajvar, and a mouthwatering mushroom duxelle. Really, though, it's hard even to get that far, because taking the time to dip a knife into the ramekin and spread one of the condiments on the ustipci means delaying its arrival in your mouth by a good fifteen seconds. For something this wonderful, that seems like an eternity. Then again, it's a small price to pay for the luxury of dipping a doughnut hole into cheesy butter.
Best Way to Roll One Up
Spring Roll at Banh Mi So
4071 South Grand Boulevard, 314-353-0545
The neon sign that lights up the façade of Banh Mi So makes a bold proclamation: "Best Spring Rolls in St. Louis." Any question as to whether this is hyperbole is thrown out the window the second you sink your teeth into one of the Truong family's Vietnamese delicacies. The spring rolls are simple, and in terms of contents, not all that different from what you'd find at other Vietnamese spots. A sticky rice paper roll is stuffed with mung beans, vermicelli noodles, meat or tofu, fresh mint and lettuce. However, it's the quality of the ingredients, the care that goes into making them, and the delectable housemade sauces that make these spring rolls stand out from the pack. Ask for a side of Banh Mi So's signature fish sauce, then use the spring roll to soak up every last bit of this divine concoction (we recommend ordering the shrimp and pork combo). Then bask in the reverie of eating at one of the city's most beloved establishments.
Best Use of Red Hot Riplets
"Rip Fries" at Mac's Local Eats
1227 Tamm Avenue, 314-479-8155
Until this year, if you wanted the sweet and fiery taste of Red Hot Riplets, your only option was to grab a bag of chips. Thankfully, the folks at Old Vienna caught on to their beloved chips' cult status and released the seasoning blend in jars. The possibilities are now endless. Sprinkle it in fried chicken batter for a decidedly St. Louis riff on Nashville hot chicken! Add it to a barbecue rub to kick up ribs or even use it to rim a bloody mary (thanks, Byrd & Barrel)! However, the spot that has best embraced the Riplet in all of its glory is Mac's Local Eats, with its "Rip Fries." It's such a simple concept, one that should be self-evident considering it's only one step removed from seasoned potato chips. But don't let that fool you into thinking these deep-fried beauties are anything less than a masterpiece. Really, is there a better way to enjoy Riplet seasoning than on a steaming basket of french fries? The piquant spice blend melds with fryer grease, encrusting the spuds with an addictive coating. It's the seasoned fry of your dreams: salty, spicy, greasy, a touch sweet — and St. Louis through and through.
Chocolate Chip Cookie at Comet Coffee & Microbakery
5708 Oakland Avenue, 314-932-7770
When Mark Atwood and Stephanie Fischer opened Comet Coffee, they set out to create a hub where coffee from the city's best roasters could be enjoyed under one roof. They succeeded, garnering a loyal customer base in the process, but there's another reason people speak of Comet with fanatical devotion, and it has nothing to do with coffee. Comet is also home to Fischer's microbakery, where she quietly turns out some of the city's best pastries: delectable croissants, a riff on Momofuku's birthday cake, bear claws, savory scones and brioche. All are worthy of accolades, but Fischer's best-in-class chocolate chip cookie is her claim to fame. These massive treats are the perfection of the form, filled with discs of couverture chocolate the size of quarters that somehow manage to stay melty even after they've cooled. Fischer folds them into a vanilla-laden cookie batter made 24 hours before baking the cookies, a pause that allows the flavors to fuse together and develop. Once finished, the cookies strike a balance between chewy and crispy with their soft interior and crunchy exterior. A few flakes of fleur de sel are sprinkled over the top to underscore the toasty, savory flavors of butter and flour. Dunk one into your coffee, eat it on the side or wash it down with just a glass of milk. However you choose to enjoy this magnificent cookie, you're in for a treat.
Best Way to Eat Eggplant
Yushiang Eggplant at Webster Wok
8162 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-961-5999
Webster Wok doesn't advertise its wonderful Yushiang-style eggplant. In fact, Webster Wok doesn't advertise the fact that it has an authentic Chinese menu at all. Unless you've been tipped off, you'd have no idea that this three-decades-old mainstay of General Tso's chicken was taken over earlier this year by a new management team, who converted it into a bastion of authentic Chinese cuisine. They keep the menu secret, assuming their diners want Americanized fare, but if you know to ask for it, an array of traditional delicacies awaits, including eggplant that is so delectable, it crushes any other attempts at utilizing this noble vegetable. This dish is visually stunning: Vibrant, purple-hued eggplant, flecked with ruby red chile peppers, glistens with sesame oil, giving it such a sheen it looks like it's been shellacked. This is a spicy dish, but the heat is balanced out with vinegar and sugar, giving it a mouthwatering sweet and sour feeling that is as far removed from that cloying red nonsense as it gets. The chef skillfully cooks the vegetable so that it's firm enough to retain its texture, yet soft enough to dissolve in the mouth. After eating this dish, who needs advertising? You'll be screaming about it from the rooftops.
Best Way to Make Grandma Jealous
Chicken Noodle Soup at Grove East Provisions
3101 Arsenal Street, 314-802-7090
Barry Kinder is a man of many skills. He's a musician, a building rehabber, a cook, a business owner, and, starting a year or so ago, an artisanal baker. However, the one title that trumps them all is the king of chicken noodle soup. Since opening his corner bodega, Grove East Provisions, three years ago, Kinder has been consistently making the city's most delectable chicken noodle soup. It's so authentically homey, he should be giving pro tips to everyone's grandmothers. His rendition is as classic as it comes: a clean, flavor-packed broth that tastes like it's been simmering for days; carrots, celery and onions; hearty noodles and massive hunks of pulled chicken. It's basically a meal in a cup. Paired with a slice of crusty, wood-fired bread, this is the sort of pure comfort usually enjoyed sitting on grandma's divan wrapped in an afghan — only better. Just don't tell her.
Best Au Jus
"The Dip" at Eat Sandwiches
3148 Morganford Road, 314-797-8188
Byron Smith had had enough. "Why, in a city filled with great sandwich shops, was it so hard to find a good French drip?" he lamented, finally deciding to take matters into his own hands. Together with a few of his friends, Smith opened Eat Sandwiches in the heart of Morganford's business district. It was a sandwich shop, sure, but it was also an excuse to give his town a taste of what a French dip should be. The result of his efforts is a heaping beast of a sandwich that makes you painfully aware of what you've been missing all this time. House roasted beef is shaved thin and stuffed between slices of crusty bread with a light, airy interior that is perfect as an au jus sponge. Raw red onions and pungent horseradish sauce add bite, and Prairie Breeze cheddar cheese gives the sandwich creamy and salty zip. Granted you don't usually find cheese on a traditional French dip, but Smith didn't set out to do things according to tradition; he set out to make the best. That, he did.
Best Culinary Surprise
Gas Station Ceviche at Fairview Lounge
10616 Lincoln Trail, Fairview Heights, Illinois; 618-394-8904
If the idea of eating ceviche from a Metro East gas station shakes you to your core, well, it should. Anyone with an iota of self-preservation would be crazy not to question the idea of noshing on a platter of basically raw fish from a place that's a full day's drive from the coast — and that makes its money on motor fuel and lotto. However, if you are brave enough to dive into the ceviche at Fairview Lounge, you'll be rewarded with the metro area's most pleasant surprise. Owners Lorena and Abdallah Abraham didn't think the idea for authentic Peruvian food inside of a gas station was all that odd. In Lorena's native Peru, it's not uncommon to find small business, roadside stands or even petrol marts serving up high-quality cuisine. Though they had originally planned to serve American bar food, the pair were inspired by a trip back to Lorena's homeland to instead create a menu of authentic delicacies. Of course, ceviche had to be part of that vision, and the Abrahams do not disappoint. Shockingly fresh pieces of whitefish, dressed in mouth-puckering lime juice, are flecked with fiery serrano peppers, then dressed with cilantro and shaved red onions. As a bonus, the dish is plated with a side of cancha, a traditional dish of soured corn that tastes like a light corn nut. It's the second best accompaniment to the Fairview Lounge's ceviche — the first is courage.
Best Salad Dressing
Creamy Garlic Dressing at Frank & Helen's Pizzeria
8111 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-997-0666
Dining at Frank & Helen's is an exercise in difficult decision making. Pizza or steak? Broasted chicken or chicken spedini? Cheesy bread or cheese sticks? Thankfully, in the midst of these mind-spinning choices, there's one question that answers itself: What type of salad dressing would you like? If the house creamy garlic dressing is not what immediately comes to mind, this is obviously your first time dining at the six-decades-old institution. For as long as it's been around, the landmark University City pizzeria has been smothering its salads in a glorious nectar so pungent as to bring a tear to the eye. The creamy concoction is basically garlic in liquid form. It can make your nose run the same way a hot chile pepper can — but you'll be so intoxicated by its magnificence, you might hardly notice. There simply isn't a better topper for a bowl of iceberg lettuce, Provel cheese, croutons and a tomato wedge, and the servers know this. That's why they serve it on the side in a ramekin big enough to cover three salads (it still counts as an individual portion at Frank & Helen's). If there's any left after you've made your salad into creamy garlic soup, perhaps use the remainder as a condiment for the restaurant's cheese garlic bread, pizza crust, chicken or whatever else is in your line of sight. Or better yet, why not cut to the chase and simply shoot it straight from the ramekin? We won't judge.
Best Brain Freeze
Dark & Fancy at Ices Plain & Fancy
2256 South 39th Street, 314-601-3604
If they start giving out Nobel prizes for food and drink, the first recipient should be the person who came up with the idea for boozy ice cream. It's genius, really: pair something that hurts your brain with something that numbs it, cancelling out the bad parts of downing ice cream at lightning speed by adding alcohol to the equation. Nowhere is this win-win more apparent than at Shaw's Ices Plain & Fancy, where the beloved "Dark & Stormy" cocktail has been turned into a luxuriously creamy treat. Here, Goslings' dark rum (enough to make you feel it, at that) is blended with ginger beer and the parlor's signature Nitro vanilla ice cream into a spicy, brown-sugary confection that tastes like the best parts of childhood and adulthood in one frosty bite. Forget a food and drink prize; give the folks at Ices Plain & Fancy the Nobel for Peace. Something this tasty is good enough to make the whole world sing kumbaya.
Best Use of Pork
Flying Pig at Guerrilla Street Food
3559 Arsenal Street, 529-1328
When it first rolled onto the scene in 2009, Guerrilla Street Food dazzled diners by showing us that fine-dining flavors could come from a humble food truck. Fast-forward six years and two brick and mortars later and Joel Crespo and Brian Hardesty's Filipino phenom is still making us fall in love. This staying power is evident in the fast-casual eatery's signature dish, the "Flying Pig." It's so delicious, we could have eaten it every day of the last six years and still not be tired of it. How could one ever grow weary of pulled pork shoulder, roasted low and slow for twelve hours with its juices, together with sriracha, hoisin and tangy calamansi, soaking into fragrant jasmine rice with a fried garlic, black sesame and scallion garnish? To cap it all off, a luxurious, 63-degree egg the texture of burrata oozes over the pork like a silken blanket. On a menu that's a celebration of one delicious dish after another, the fact that the "Flying Pig" has been able to remain Guerrilla Street Food's most beloved mainstay speaks volumes. Undoubtedly, we'll be saying the same thing six years from now.
Best Tribute to New Orleans
Muffuletta at Blues City Deli
2438 McNair Avenue, 314-773-8225
If the idea of spending a frigid afternoon dodging beer-splashed beads (and god knows what else) while trying to avoid flashers does not sound like your idea of fun, there is a much better way to honor our city's NOLA sisterhood than Soulard Mardi Gras. Just head a few blocks over to Benton Park, order a muffuletta at Blues City Deli and let your thoughts drift about 700 miles down the Mississippi. This beloved sandwich shop may be St. Louis through and through, but its ode to the classic New Orleans muffuletta is as authentic as you get this far north. Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and mozzarella are stuffed between two slices of crusty, sesame-coated bread. The key, though, is the olive spread, a piquant and chunky tapenade of equal parts Kalamata olives, Sicilian olives and spicy giardiniera that is so liberally applied there's no way to avoid making a mess. Owner Vince Valenza took his St. Louis stewardship of this famous sandwich seriously, calling the folks at the famed Central Grocery in New Orleans, widely considered the axis mundi of all things muffuletta, to find out how to make one properly. His research paid off in the form of what may be the best way St. Louis honors its NOLA brothers and sisters.
Best Use of Caramel
Pork Ribs at Vista Ramen
2609 Cherokee Street, 314-797-8250
When you read the description of the pork ribs at Vista Ramen, you might think you've found a misprint. Crab caramel? It seems like an odd mix considering we're not used to seeing the ubiquitous, brown-sugary ice cream and bread pudding topper outside of its dessert applications. Leave it to the brilliant Chris Bork to expand our ideas of flavor even further than he's expanded notions of what a ramen shop can be. For his signature pork ribs, Bork marries butter, sugar, fish sauce and crab paste to make a concoction so sticky and funky, it's like James Brown dipped in a honey pot. Bork uses the sauce to gild his fall-off-the-bone pork ribs, and each bite explodes with umami, salt, sea and sugar. It's an intense flavor experience, but Bork mitigates the richness with crushed peanuts for texture and sprigs of cilantro for refreshment. That some of the best ribs in town come from a place calling itself a noodle shop might be shocking, but it's this sort of unexpected genius that makes Vista one of the most exciting restaurants in the city.
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