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The 40 Best Things We're Eating in St. Louis Right Now 

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Galbi at Wudon. - MABEL SUEN
  • Galbi at Wudon.

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.

Best Sandwich

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.

click to enlarge "Hot Crisp Fish" at Cate Zone. - MABEL SUEN
  • "Hot Crisp Fish" at Cate Zone.

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.

Best Marinade

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 Grbic. - MABEL SUEN
  • "Balkan Dipping Board" at Grbic.

Best Appetizer

"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.

"Rip Fries" at Mac's Local Eats. - MABEL SUEN
  • "Rip Fries" at Mac's Local Eats.

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.

Best Cookie

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.

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