I wasn't in the mood for a burger the first time I visited Schoemehl's South Side Grill, but I ordered one anyway. I knew little about the restaurant besides its name and location in the Patch neighborhood of south south city. The interior didn't reveal much else: a shotgun room with a bar and dining tables; flat-screen TV sets tuned to ESPN and the NHL Network but muted so a Top 40 radio station could play; sports memorabilia on the walls, universal icons (Jordan, Tiger) as well as the hometown heroes. Faced with the generic, I defaulted to a burger.
Specifically, I defaulted to the "South of the Border" burger, a patty topped with pepper-jack cheese and slices of pickled jalapeño. Cooked to my requested temperature and not a tick hotter, it had the one-two mineral punch of grill char and medium-rare ground beef, with a mild kick from the cheese and chiles. On the side, instead of french fries, were homemade potato chips. Fried to a golden-brown crisp, these were just thick enough to retain a slight chew and the actual flavor of potato, goosed with salt and a dash of cayenne pepper.
The burger was good, but it was the chips that brought me back.
A burger, a beer, the ball game on TV: A neighborhood bar-and-grill doesn't need to offer much more than this to succeed. By that reckoning, the three establishments in this week's column are already winners. Yet each in its own way rises above the bar-and-grill baseline to appeal to an audience beyond its own small corner of south St. Louis.
The potato chips were the first sign that something interesting is happening at Schoemehl's, which partners Greg Schoemehl, Pete Schoemehl (Greg's nephew) and Jean Ann Mantia (the chef) opened late last summer. Even more impressive are the wings. An order brings four whole wings, smoked and then deep-fried and tossed in a sauce thicker and more complexly spiced (though less piquant) than the generic Buffalo concoction. Even with this sauce coating the wings and your fingers, you can taste the kiss of smoke in the meat.
The menu isn't broad. The wings are one of four appetizers. There are soups and salads, burgers and sandwiches, a daily special or two. The sandwiches include pulled pork from the restaurant's smoker. The meat is tender and presented without any adornments. (Squeeze bottles of housemade barbecue sauces sit on each table: two on the sweet side, one spicy.) The woefully named but tasty "Corned Gobbler Panini" adds smoked turkey to the classic Reuben trio of corned beef, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. Each sandwich comes with the aforementioned chips. You can substitute fries or onion rings, but you won't.
When SOHA Bar & Grill opened in Clifton Heights in October, it already had serious south-city cred: Owner John McDonald operates Nick's Irish Pub in nearby Cheltenham. Rather than clone Nick's, McDonald let general manager and head barman Rocky Hazelwood give SOHA its own identity, which falls somewhere between corner bar and highfalutin gastropub.
SOHA occupies a small, standalone building on Hampton Avenue just south of Interstate 44, in the space that was previously home to the restaurant Off the Vine, which has sat vacant for several years. The interior has the potential to convey the cozy ambiance of a proper pub, with a wood-burning fireplace smack-dab in the center of the room, but the copious (and noisy) modern touches — flat-screens, Internet jukebox, a Big Buck Hunter game — overshadow such subtleties.
Hazelwood describes SOHA's menu as "outside-the-box American." The description's vague enough to mean almost anything, but the "Notorious B.L.T." seems closest to its intended spirit: a classic BLT turned up to eleven. Not coincidentally, it is my favorite dish here. The sandwich features thick and wonderfully fatty slices of pork belly with lettuce, tomato and, because too much bacon is just barely enough, honey-bacon mayonnaise.
The rest of the menu isn't nearly as playful, but the food is satisfying. A plate with two bratwurst links steamed in beer and served atop a pillow of braised sauerkraut comes closest to the pub ideal. A small but appreciated note: The green beans that accompanied the sausages hadn't been boiled into submission but sautéed to a lovely al dente snap. Mac & cheese, available as entrée or side, is stand-your-fork-in-it thick with melted cheddar. A last-minute broiling gives it a delicious browned crust.
SOHA will serve you a burger of five, ten, fifteen, twenty or even twenty-five ounces. I didn't see a defibrillator behind the bar, so I tried the five-ounce patty, simply seasoned and very juicy. Paired with a craft beer from SOHA's excellent draft selection, it isn't "outside-the-box" cuisine but is squarely in the sweet spot of good bar grub.
I enjoyed eating at Quincy Street Bistro when I reviewed it in the summer of 2011. It struck me as the perfect neighborhood spot, comfortable in its own skin. Late last year, however, owner Mike Enright brought on Rick Lewis, who had worked with Josh Galliano at Monarch, as executive chef, and Lewis has refined the menu and given this Princeton Heights spot a definite Southern drawl.
Yes, you can still order a burger and a beer, but the burger is now a ten-ounce patty of ground chuck from locally raised beef. At a medium-rare temperature, the flavor is exceptional, purely beefy with a smack of iron. It must join the ranks of St. Louis' best burgers. Lewis doesn't assemble a standout BLT so much as craft it — from house-cured bacon and wedges of crisp, tart fried green tomatoes with mixed greens and a Cajun-spiced mayo.
Quincy Street's entrées (or "suppers," as the menu dubs them) include catfish dredged in cornmeal and then deep-fried. (This is also available as the main event in a po' boy sandwich.) The fish is remarkably moist under its jacket of cornmeal, and it has none of the unpleasant oiliness for which the species is notorious. A buttermilk soak deepens the flavor of a boneless chicken breast dredged in flour and pan-fried. A thick coat of white gravy flecked with black pepper completed the dish.
Suppers come with your choice of two sides. With the fried chicken I opted for the thin, crisp housemade potato chips and the vegetable of the day. The latter brought a miniature mason jar with roasted carrots, beets and watermelon radish. The vegetable preparation wasn't complicated, but it was seasonally appropriate and perfectly executed, roasty-sweet with an undertone of earth. It was small but vital proof that with a talented chef committed to his craft, a neighborhood bar-and-grill can aspire to be much more.