Iron Barley looks and feels like an Allman Brothers song. There's a screened front door that emits that wonderful, summery slap! when it bangs shut behind you. Owner Tom Coghill, visible in the back kitchen, perpetually dons the same tie-dyed T-shirt and thick, sweat-catching bandanna. Although his last gig was head chef at Frazer's Traveling Brown Bag and he logged years before that at the Union Station Hyatt and the Adam's Mark, Coghill doesn't look like a chef. He looks like a cook, a guy who avoids using French culinary terms at all costs and would rather arm-wrestle than finely grate a zest. The kind of guy who unabashedly puts jelly on his fried bologna sandwiches -- which he did, growing up on the north side, and which he's still doing here, at his restaurant on the south side. Behind the lunch counter, shelves display model cars, Boy Scout trophies and a fake license plate with a picture of a handgun, which reads: "I don't dial 911; I dial 357." Countless cast-iron frying pans of all shapes and sizes hang from the walls; smaller ones placed on tables can be used as ashtrays. The unisex bathroom's mirror is ensconced in a saddle.
Like kudzu, word of nine-week-old Iron Barley's audaciously country-fried menu and Southern-soul atmosphere has spread at a wondrous rate; folks are raving about it on local Internet discussion boards, and the civic-savvy group Metropolis St. Louis kicked off its most recent neighborhood bar crawl, a tour of Carondelet, with dinner there, even though the place doesn't serve alcohol yet. (It might be some months before he obtains a liquor license, reports Coghill, who's toying with the idea of brewing his own suds once that happens.) In an unassuming little storefront, on a throwaway stretch of street off I-55, Coghill has concocted a café that's hard to do worded justice to without cussing.
Highbrow and lowbrow haven't commingled this entertainingly since The Beverly Hillbillies, or at least The Jeffersons: barbecue shrimp, hot smoked salmon salad, barley paella, oak-roasted pork and chicken. Which is not to imply this is white-trash cuisine. Ingredients are fresher than a Southern belle on cotillion night, and everything's homemade except the ketchup. Cole slaw is far from standard mass-produced versions, made with all purple cabbage and a kick of caraway seeds. The Parmesan atop the Caesar salad ain't grated; it comes in formidable, cigarette-size shavings. There isn't even a choice of dressings for the other two salads, because all greens are treated to the same house glaze, and it is gobble-it-up good.
With sandwiches spelled "sammiches" and jambalaya served in "po" (read: small) or "not so po" sizes, I don't recall ever having quite this much fun just reading a menu. There are a few taunting curiosities, like the Monte Cristo dog, which receives no printed description and turns out to be nothing like a traditional Monte Cristo sandwich (chicken or turkey slices, Swiss cheese and sometimes ham, grilled in egg batter). This is two quarter-pound wieners on a toasted hot dog bun with Swiss -- and gobs of strawberry preserves. At the very bottom of Iron Barley's bill of fare, large type proclaims the establishment "HOME OF THE BALLISTIC ELVIS SAMMICHE." Again, no details, although those with more intimate knowledge of the King's eating habits could probably venture a decent guess: It's a grilled American cheese sandwich with jam, sliced bananas, peanut butter and red pepper flakes. It is scrumptious and surprising all at once, unafraid of combining sweet and salty. It came about one afternoon when, in Coghill's words, he found himself with "some bananas, some beer and nothing to do." In making it, he employs whatever jelly is "the cheapest jar on the shelf at Schnucks." It is the pinnacle of haute hoosier.
So is cast-iron cooking, which appeals both to Coghill's (and lots of other chefs') practical side -- because the cookware rarely needs washing ("Once the carbon builds up, you just wipe 'em with a towel now and then and they're good to go") -- and his creative side. During his last few years at Frazer's, Coghill whipped up most of the staff meals, a task that chefs often find more fulfilling than cooking for customers, because they're allowed complete whimsy. Coghill made his staff meals in cast-iron skillets, and many of those creations have made their way onto the Iron Barley menu. (An interesting side note, and a little something to offset the cholesterol factor here: It has been documented that iron deficiencies, especially in women, became widespread after the introduction of nonstick pots and pans.)
Cast iron, or maybe just the cast iron in use at Iron Barley, also imparts an immediacy to the taste of food, a peculiar, seductive, smoky -- oh fine, I'll just say it, an emotional -- resonance. Nostalgia itself is a flavor here. The salmon (which is available on a bed of salad greens, or as an entrée with saffron barley and bacon- and onion-infused green beans); the whole, skin-on chicken leg in the jambalaya; the barbecue chicken salad -- these don't just carry the taste of barbecue sauce; they taste like the whole barbecue, like the backyard and the charcoal, the popsicle juice running down your arm and the margarine tub with the grass lining the bottom and the holes poked in the top and the fireflies caught inside. There is only one thing to have for dessert at Iron Barley -- not because it is the only dessert on the menu (although it is), but because it is the only thing you could possibly want after a meal here -- and that is pie. I swear up and down that Coghill stole his recipe for Blender Blaster Pie off the lid of a Cool Whip container, because it's got the exact-same graham-cracker crust, creamy texture and freezer-baked preparation as my Aunt Marie's strawberry yogurt pie, and that's where she got hers from. But he actually stole it from Biker Billy Cooks with Fire: Robust Recipes from America's Most Outrageous Television Chef, a book by alleged celeb chef Bill Hufnagle. Made from light cream, sour cream, chocolate syrup, cream cheese and confectioners' sugar, it's topped with a strawberry-habanero chile sauce that will burn the roof of your mouth if eaten separate from the pie. In the same mouthful, though, they're remarkably sweet and mild.
I want to live at Iron Barley, is what I thought to myself each time I left. This restaurant makes me so happy. It is rare and lovely to experience an eatery where it is crystal clear from the moment you walk in that the operation is fueled entirely by a single person's ideal and imagination. Tom Coghill has turned his love our way, and his Iron Barley is my blue sky. It's my sunny day.