St. Louis in Requiem

Cheap Eats
March 7, 2017

The things you just may not know about your hometown. Like finding out that St. Louis is the chess capital of the world. A fact to surely take pride in but something that also seems just a little trivial when placed next to the earliest memories of one’s life. The first time I saw fireworks was off the banks of the mighty Mississippi. The heat of a humid St. Louis summer is synonymous with watching professional baseball(Go Cards!). And then there is the food that I grew up with. Late night burger runs at Steak ‘n Shake. Toasted Raviolis, Provel laced pizza, heck veal parms – it ain’t easy finding a veal parm sandwich these days. But that was not the St. Louis that Cheap Eats experienced. Like the saying goes, “you can’t go home again” and we didn’t. Our time was spent throwing the spotlight on a barbecue scene that is coming into its own over the last fifteen or so years. And bold St. Louisans who resist the constant temptation to settle in the idyllic if less historic suburbs west of the city proper in order to bring life to a city that was once the center of the Midwest. St. Louis has changed . . . some, and I’m proud to say that. So even though I look fondly on the this town as where it all began for me, let’s sink our teeth into a side of my hometown that is just as fresh and as different for you as it was for me.

The Vitals:
the spot: Kingside Diner 4651 Maryland Ave St. Louis MO 63108
the eats:  The Slinger
the bucks: $10
the full nelson:  A St. Louis Diner classic with a chef driven revamp.

Welcome to the Central West End, Cheap Eaters. With a median home price that doubles the city average, one should not be surprised to find a fancy slinger in these parts. The Midwest breakfast icon receives a welcomed revamp of Mexican flavors by way of Chorizo in the chili and spices in a pulled pork braise. Although a more well thought out version, the slinger at Kingside still retains the “everything but the kitchen sink” appeal as these two bold and hearty meat dishes are dressed up as breakfast thanks to a bed of hash browns and a couple sunny side up eggs. Ironically I never had slinger until my visit to Kingside despite 18 years of calling myself a St. Louisan. Certainly this version was worth the wait and makes me pause if I ever need to try a classic version with hamburger patty, steak and “old school chili” gracing my insides well before 12 noon. The thought of it makes me want to reach for a tums but then again, the requisite evening that qualifies one’s morning to be “Slinger worthy” means a couple Tums are the least of your problems. Oh feel free to go halvsies, as this is a fair meal for two and steal at $5 a head.

The Vitals:
the spot: Capitalist Pig 2727 S. 12th Street St. Louis MO 63118
the eats:  Pork Belly BLT
the bucks: $8.50
the full nelson:  The latest contender in the STL BBQ scene borrows from the Farm to Table playbook.

The St. Louis barbecue scene isn’t quite at a tipping point but certainly if one is to open a smoked meat venue now, your culinary point of view will be the next question asked shortly after “what’s your specialty?”. Which brings to Capitalist Pig who is bringing sustainable meats to the St. Louis barbecue scene. So what does that mean exactly? Pork fed on an organic diet. Chicken from local farms. A bbq joint that embraces stress free and antibiotic free as much as a Whole Foods. For Cheap Eats this meant a special BLT that deserved something more than just lettuce, tomato and mayo. Owner, pit master, former cop and artist Ron Buechele really utilizes that last job category by creating a BLT experience that resembles an epic Christmas ham dinner with an aromatic spiced tomato jam and thick cuts house cured pork belly. Oh and this Cheap Eats experience isn’t just about the food either as Capitalist Pig calls a former St Louis Jail facility home. Truth be told, eating in a cell where criminals once resided draws up an eerie feeling, until one of the most unique BBQ sandwiches I have ever had draws you back in for bites four through twelve. If this is doing hard time, consider me unwilling to take a plea bargain.

The Vitals:
the spot: Pint Size Bakery 3133 Watson Road St. Louis MO 63139
the eats:  The Brookie
the bucks: $4
the full nelson:  A marriage made in artisan baking heaven 

I seldom make the obligatory home for the holidays trips to STL these days but when I did, I found myself scurrying back and forth from the County to the City. I was hell bent on experiencing the “real St. Louis” – where neighborhoods with character and cheap bars flourished. Now that I am a parent and can count myself among the ranks of young families who have fled the big cities for more greener pastures, I actually see the draw to St Louis County. Backyards where kids can experience a childhood straight out of a wagon scene from Calvin and Hobbes is something to behold. Oh, and then there is the whole school thing. When I lived in downtown Los Angeles, my wife and I were so fortunate to find ANY daycare let alone one we felt comfortable with. So look, I get it. I understand why people move back to St Louis, and/or move out to the suburbs – it makes life easier when one’s life gets pretty darn challenging. Still the sight of the City of St. Louis emptying after a Cardinals or Blues game saddens me. To see beautiful street lamps light empty sidewalks makes one feel empty inside. And with that image in mind I could not be happier to know that Christy Augustin and Nancy Boehm have opened Pint Size Bakery in the City of St. Louis. Lord knows these tempting pastries would fly in the more affluent suburbs but this is a splendid case of why a neighborhood needs a $10 pressed juice, a $5 coffee or in this case a $4 cookie/brownie hybrid. It gives an area much needed life whether it is from a well heeled visitor from the suburbs or a local who is looking for something a little more special to eat. In Watts CA and Oakland CA, Food Truck Phenom chef Roy Choi opened LocoL, a restaurant looking to improve a community with foods that were considerably more wholesome and elevated than what was currently available. The circumstances surrounding Pint Size are nowhere near as dire, but the sense of recognizing and elevating communities is similar. The breads and pastries these ladies serve are as delicious as they look and their skills are worthy of the title “pastry chef”. But beyond the smiles and “yums” that come after taking down these sweet treats is a sense of hope that the of the City of St. Louis will . . . well, survive.

The Vitals:
the spot: Dalie’s Smokehouse 2951 Doughterferry Road St. Louis MO 63122
the eats:  Cranberry Cayenne Chicken with baked beans
the bucks: $9.99
the full nelson:  A Legendary BBQ Bird that launched the career of one of the most important pitmasters in St. Louis Barbecue history

I still enjoy correcting folks who ask me what “St. Louis style ribs” entail. The look on their faces that turns to a sort of reserved surprise when they find out the key features have little to do with sauce, smoke and rub but rather the removal of the rib tip and cartilage; akin to why strip loin steaks are often referred to as New York Strips. But there is a little history of barbecue here. Mauls’ sauce is a local favorite though lacking a presence outside the region. Pork Steaks, cut from the Shoulder blade are beloved by locals but again fail to see much action outside the 314. By far what really makes St. Louis a barbecue town is what has happened in the 21st century. It all started with a little barbecue joint called Super Smokers that made some of the best bbq in town. At their height of local fame, they had a stand outside the old Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals played. Super Smokers shuddered and from the ashes rose Pappy’s Smokehouse, a still going beloved BBQ institution claiming the style of Memphis. Expect great pork ribs. Meat cooked over cherry wood and apple because that’s whats available in these parts. Off shoots were inevitable like Bogart’s and now Dalie’s Smokehouse. With Dalie’s we actually see a bit of a departure from “Memphis style” with a menu that includes the likes of Pastrami and a certain smoked chicken that launched pit master Skip Steele’s career. No longer defined by some other town’s barbecue traditions, St. Louis now gets to write their own lore and it starts with Skip. An Arkansas native who made his way to Tennessee and beyond, Skip started making BBQ smokers before he was in high school when he took a job at a scrap yard. By college he was making BBQ and selling it with lines running out the door quite possibly before Aaron Franklin’s parents even met. And what were people lining up for? The chicken that I had for my dinner in Cheap Eats St. Louis. For me, the BBQ experience means red meat but I must say, this chicken will change your perception of what is possible with the dirty bird. Beyond the smoke and mirrors of being hit with a blow torch for a delicious spice glazed finish is a bird whose flesh is beyond tender and embraced by the sweet smoke of cherry wood. I live in Texas and am currently well caught up in the swoon of post oak and beef brisket BUT I do understand and appreciate the sweeter side of BBQ that comes from pork ribs and the rubs of Memphis, the sauces of KC and now the cherry wood infused chicken of St. Louis. Chefs often strive for balance and this is exactly what you get with Skip Steele’s chicken. As memorable as the man himself, don’t sleep on this smoked bird – it is surely one of the most satisfying barbecue experiences in the country.

The Vitals:
the spot: Adriana’s on the Hill 5101 Shaw Ave Doughterferry Road St. Louis MO 63110
the eats:  Sicilian Salsciccia 
the bucks: $8.50
the full nelson:  A sausage calzone that was reborn into a panini

Ask any St. Louisan what the Hill is and no matter their walk of life, they will embrace their inner Italian – I certainly do. A grand reflection on the city’s cultural and therefor culinary past, The Hill is a historic Italian neighborhood with more than a fair share of iconic eateries. This is a neighborhood I look back on with incredible fondness, especially when amongst St. Louis ex pats. In these conversations, a number of eateries will come as “the one” – for me it has to be Adriana’s. With twenty plus sandwiches on the menu, I have tried a grand total of three and I place the blame squarely on the Siciliana Salsiccia. Sausage is a rich meal but a sausage sandwich served on a buttered loaf of garlic cheese bread? Madonne! That is rich. Some foods need little explanation on why they are must try’s and with that I drop my fork Cheap Eaters – go get yourselves one!!!

This was the final shot from Cheap Eats St. Louis. I look back at this skyline and my youth in this small Midwestern city with fondness and wonder. My childhood was not 100% idyllic. My father passed away weeks before we began filming season two. Still I look back at it all with soft warm eyes. I will always be thankful that St. Louis is where it all began for me. A place just diverse enough to make me want to explore the bigger world that surrounds. A place that instilled in me a humbleness in my curiosity to explore cities, cultures and communities. The best part is that while time marches on and inevitable changes tag along for the ride, St. Louis never ceases to feel like the home I remember. Maybe they were all wrong. You can come home again, if home happens to be St. Louis MO.

And that’s all I have to say about Cheap Eats Season 2.

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2 responses to “St. Louis in Requiem”

  1. Cathy Lampe says:

    You did NOT disappoint — as locals we had not heard much about Dalie’s but hot-footed it down there after your show. The people are so warm and easygoing and absolutely everything we ordered was scrumptious!

    We will definitely check off ALL of these in the the coming months. Love what you do, AK, keep it up!!

    • blackbookali says:

      Thank you Cathy!! Skip(the pitmaster) is the real deal. It amazes to take in the fact that the St. Louis BBQ scene has become a real “thang” over the last decade or so . . . goes to show you that food culture isn’t necessarily set in stone – it is a fluid as a North Carolina vinegar based BBQ sauce!!

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