Americana comes in many forms. Sometimes it's the painting American Gothic, or Edward Hopper's 1942 scene-from-a-diner masterpiece, Nighthawks. Sometimes it's roadside burger shacks, grease trucks parked on the fringes of college campuses, Mom's apple pie, drugstore soda fountains or red-checkered tablecloths. Oftentimes, Americana is represented through food, arguably the greatest nostalgic force there is.
The five-month-old Shangri-La Diner, on Cherokee Street's Antique Row in south city, embodies a modern-day tweak on Americana. On the tabletops sit those wonderful, beveled-glass sugar decanters, but at Shangri-La they're filled with raw, brown-hued sugar. There are milkshakes and malts, but there're also glasses of sprightly, tart, freshly squeezed and pureed strawberry lemonade, served with bubblegum-pink bendy straws. Seating options at Shangri-La include red-vinyl banquettes and pink-Formica two-tops. Along the eatery's eastern wall, these tables are paired up two-by-two and separated from other makeshift four-tops by rows of purple-and-lime-green hanging beads that resemble big, dangly Pucci-Bakelite earrings. The counter at the back and the shelves behind it serve as home to a cornucopia of kitsch: twinkle lights, fake palm trees, leis draped over this and that, an old-fashioned milkshake mixer (soon to be put to actual use whipping up those aforementioned shakes and malts; for now, they're made with a second mixer in the kitchen), a powder-blue rotary phone (in actual use), Barbie dolls, Yellow Submarine posters.
It's the Swinging '60s all over again at Shangri-La. Not only does the décor bang out a syncopated riff on all things psychedelic, funkadelic and Technicolor-dreamy (keyed up to a soundtrack of '60s oldies, hackneyed hits that somehow feel fresh all over again in these environs), but owner Patrice Mari's menu hearkens those hippy-dippy-groovy days when conscientious eating first began to come into its own, when vegetarianism and organic foodstuffs started spreading across many a Berkeley commune and grocery-store co-op.
Nowadays, that sort of trend is usually tabulated and popularized via best-selling diet books; Mari herself is a disciple of The Perricone Prescription, written by Dr. Nicholas Perricone, who advocates an anti-aging regimen free of trans-fats and full of such superfoods as spinach, salmon, beans, tofu, whole grains, fruits and broccoli. She's not afraid of desserts, to be sure (witness again those shakes and malts), but at least she employs pure butter and cream in their recipes.
Shangri-La is only open four days a week, serving breakfast and lunch Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and then an all-you-can-eat brunch on Sunday. The menu is small, curiously curated and across-the-board delish. Four sandwiches include a spicy salmon burger, a soft-textured delight that employs a filet of wild Alaskan salmon and a delicious remoulade on old-fashioned egg bread, and "The Fat Mattress," a chicken-salad sandwich that substitutes mushroom-based faux chicken for bona fide poultry. (The difference in taste from the real thing is slight; don't search for it, and you won't even know it's there.) Other lunch items include a straightforward black-bean burrito made with brown rice and Cheddar, and a golden and flaky quesadilla made with Mexican Chihuahua cheese on a whole-wheat tortilla, served with a ramekin of house-made salsa that combines tomatillos verdes, red salsa, and roasted vegetables and garlic. The soft fish taco (a spicy salmon sausage, guacamole, Cheddar, slaw and salsa wrapped in a tomato tortilla) is the best around next to Salina's in Chesterfield, which is really saying something.
African spinach stew is not something you encounter everyday, if ever on any day at all. Mari claims it's an authentic West African dish introduced to her years back by a friend. She messed around with the proportions of its ingredients, which are basically cooked, chopped spinach, peanut butter and some diced and cooked white onion. The peanut butter isn't visible; it just looks like a plate of spinach. It tastes exactly like, well, spinach and peanut butter, two great tastes that sound awful -- but taste wonderful -- together.
Here's how Mari outlines her "foolosophy" on Shangri-La's menu: "What I've tried to create here is a place I always wanted to go and eat at but one that I could never find. The food is not New American, Neo-Ethnic, Fusion or anything else. It's simply what I like to fix for myself at home -- my version of home-cooked food. I do not consider myself a chef, nor do I want to be considered one...I just like to create tasty good-for-you food and have fun doing it."
Mari may say she doesn't want to be known as a chef -- and indeed, on one of my visits she apologized for forgetting to put the salsa on the side of my soft fish taco by saying, "I'm still learning how to cook" -- but that's a reputation from which she may find it hard to hide. Way back in the day (1982-92), she ran the much-loved La Patisserie, a coffee shop in the Loop where Meshuggah now stands. For the past six years or so, she was responsible for the Sunday brunch at MoKaBe's off South Grand, one of the most popular and jam-packed weekend repasts for St. Louis' hipsterati, many of whom have followed her brunch here.
Strawberry-lime-orange juice. Iced coffee. A broccoli-Cheddar quiche that tastes like a homey cheese casserole. Watermelon slices. Fake bacon ("Fakin'"?) that comes off more like construction paper dip-dyed in red ink. A pretty good sloppy Joe, made from TVP (texturized vegetable protein, the same stuff found in most supermarket-sold veggie burgers). And a crème brûlée French toast best scarfed down without coming up for air, a gooey, undercooked delight with bits of burnt, crusty sugar like hardened lava. (Sugar's skin-wrinkling, metabolism-screwing properties be damned, Mari knows her way around sweets. She makes a cupcake called Hostess with the Mostess, an oversize, homemade rendition of Hostess' cupcakes that, in comparison, renders the original akin to sawdust smeared with caulk.)
Shangri-La's Sunday brunch is often packed, yet everybody there seems to adopt a cheery approach to the crowding, squeezing along the banquette, passing highchairs over the heads of those huddled by the doorway, waiting for a table. It helps that tables seem to open up with good frequency, keeping the waits short; it also helps that everybody seems to know everybody else, like one big open-minded, counterculture-infused, progressively charged family. (Mari estimates that 75 percent of her brunch business comes from "upwardly mobile vegan hipsters," the rest, "mom-and-pop antiquers who come in looking for meat but stay anyway because they love the food.")
The institution of brunch, that cutesy, cosmopolitan thing you do on late weekend mornings, may not date back that far in the history of American gastronomy. Eating good food in good company -- well, that's classic. Welcome to Shangri-La.