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.