Christine Meyer and Michael Miller just wanted to sell some t-shirts. The friends, who met at the legendary restaurant Monarch, where she was a server and he was a cook, found themselves with some time on their hands when the place shut down for a remodel. Three months was too long to go without income, so Meyer invited Miller to help her out with her landscaping gig. As they bonded over a shared work ethic and evenings spent cooking, the pair hatched a plan to continue working together outside of the restaurant business: They would make t-shirts for cooks.
One of their first shirts displayed an image of a disposable vegetable peeler sold for a buck at Bertarelli Cutlery. Gadget-obsessed home cooks scoffed at such a seemingly basic tool, but line cooks knew it was the best peeler around. So Meyer and Miller immortalized it on a shirt with the moniker "Workhorse" and headed to the Tower Grove farmers market to peddle their wares under the brand Kitchen Kulture.
No one got it — well, no one except cooks. Meyer and Miller quickly realized that they needed a way to illustrate what they were trying to do with the shirts. They started selling food out of their stand.
But if people were confused by the shirts, they were crystal clear about the culinary side of Kitchen Kulture. Before Meyer and Miller knew it, they were selling more food than shirts — so much, in fact, that the edible side of their business completely overtook their t-shirt dreams. The farmers market turned into pop-ups and catering, and just like that, they were looking for a brick-and-mortar space. Like it or not, they were destined to open a restaurant.
If you eat at their tiny Lindenwood Park takeout spot, Kounter Kulture, though, you'd swear food was their life's calling. In just three short months, Meyer and Miller have transformed the former Pint Size Bakery into one of the city's most exciting culinary destinations.
The cuisine is contemporary Asian, another accident of circumstance. Though Meyer and Miller both love Asian food, they didn't envision their restaurant as such — they just wanted to source as locally as possible throughout the year and found that Asian ingredients lent themselves to pickling and preserving. Add to this the fact that the old Pint Size was zoned for carryout only, and they determined that they needed a concept that was unique, but that people would trust for takeout.
At this point — or maybe somewhere in between bites of the transcendent Japanese fried chicken — you begin to realize that the universe has conspired to create Kounter Kulture. How else can you explain the fact that two friends with no background in Asian food and few ambitions of food industry greatness have concocted a flavor profile so perfect it makes you wake up in the middle of the night desperate for a taste of those crunchy fried nuggets? The breading's black pepper heat mingles with just a touch of sweetness and salt that ticks off every taste you want in fried bird. Meyer and Miller place the chicken atop their romaine salad, which is like a Caesar on steroids. The anchovy-forward dressing soaks into crispy croutons, while pickled onions and radishes cut through the funk. It's the chicken Caesar salad all others aspire to be.
If that salad is the Platonic form of Caesars, the eatery's gyoza is the standard for pork dumplings. Minced shrimp and pork fill these deep-fried wonton pockets. A barely noticeable hint of fish sauce gives a subtle backbeat of funk — more Prince than George Clinton. Warm cabbage and sesame slaw completes the groove with a tart, fermented punch.
Meyer and Miller offer three varieties of steamed buns. The slow-roasted pork features meat so succulent it would bring a tear to a pitmaster's eye. Smoked onions and radish-jalapeno slaw are accented with punchy rice wine vinegar and fermented chili mustard.
On the vegetarian bun, panko-breaded Mofu tofu the texture of custard gets slathered with Japanese kewpie mayonnaise — the rice wine in this creamy condiment adds a sweetness that contrasts with the tangy housemade pickle garnish.
If the term "fusion" fills you with fear, Kounter Kulture's "Catfish Po' Boy" bun will change your mind. The steamed bun and togarashi rub whisper Asia but everything else about this sandwich yells Mississippi Delta. The flaky, lightly breaded fish gets a liberal slather of fiery pepper and cherry tomato remoulade. It makes you break into a sweat, but just when you think you can't take the heat, a burst of barely cooked cherry tomato releases its sweet juice to offer relief. To think that such marvelous Cajun cooking can come out of an Asian takeout spot boggles the mind.
The po'boy is not the only way Meyer and Miller show their Cajun bona fides. On one visit, the day's special shrimp and grits left me wondering if we should ever eat the classic dish another way again. Floral lemongrass was infused into the spectacularly creamy grits, and tender, lemongrass-marinated shrimp added a perfumed note. The knockout punch, however, came from the interplay of textures and flavors in the dish's garnishes — diced green and red bell peppers and onions ("the Trinity"), plus crunchy peanuts and candied butternut squash that tasted like marzipan. This dish had so many layers of flavors, each new bit revealed something new and kept me thinking about it long after dinner was finished.
If Kounter Kulture has a signature item, it's the okonomiyaki pancakes, Japan's version of a pizza party. The thick, fluffy egg and cabbage-based cake is interspersed with seasonal vegetables and a choice of fillings. I opted for mushrooms, which added umami depth underscored by a liberal sprinkling of fish flakes. Creamy Japanese mayonnaise and tart barbecue sauce are drizzled atop the cake, with more given to you on the side. Meyer recommends tasting it without the extras and then garnishing away. I realized I didn't need anything more; it was perfect just the way it came.
For the gyudon, or beef bowl, Meyer and Miller slow-cooked Missouri grass-fed beef knuckles that could've come from grandma's kitchen with raw bean sprouts, cabbage and pickled ginger straight out of a ramen shop. A poached egg oozes over the top, mingling with the beef's sweet soy jus — pot roast meets Asian barbecue.
The Korean barbecue chicken rice bowl is another example of Meyer and Miller's prowess with pairing different textures and temperatures. This time, fresh-from-the-fryer chicken, which tastes like it's been soaked in citrus and cilantro, is interspersed with hunks of ripe tomatoes, avocado, cilantro, white rice and fried noodles. Every bite has crunch and softness, hot and cold, sweet and savory — it's a masterpiece deserving of china, white tablecloths and a months-long wait for reservations.
Yet here I was, enjoying it out of a simple white takeout box on my couch. Better yet, I was in my pajamas, though I would have preferred to be dressed in one of Meyer and Miller's old-school t-shirts. These days they'd be flying off the shelves — anyone who's tasted their food would wear them with pride, no explanation needed.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- Steamed buns with slow-roasted Live Springs Farm pork, mofu tofu and togarashi-spiced catfish.