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- MABEL SUEN
- Yushiang eggplant at Webster Wok.
Best Way to Eat Eggplant
Yushiang Eggplant at Webster Wok
8162 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-961-5999
Webster Wok doesn't advertise its wonderful Yushiang-style eggplant. In fact, Webster Wok doesn't advertise the fact that it has an authentic Chinese menu at all. Unless you've been tipped off, you'd have no idea that this three-decades-old mainstay of General Tso's chicken was taken over earlier this year by a new management team, who converted it into a bastion of authentic Chinese cuisine. They keep the menu secret, assuming their diners want Americanized fare, but if you know to ask for it, an array of traditional delicacies awaits, including eggplant that is so delectable, it crushes any other attempts at utilizing this noble vegetable. This dish is visually stunning: Vibrant, purple-hued eggplant, flecked with ruby red chile peppers, glistens with sesame oil, giving it such a sheen it looks like it's been shellacked. This is a spicy dish, but the heat is balanced out with vinegar and sugar, giving it a mouthwatering sweet and sour feeling that is as far removed from that cloying red nonsense as it gets. The chef skillfully cooks the vegetable so that it's firm enough to retain its texture, yet soft enough to dissolve in the mouth. After eating this dish, who needs advertising? You'll be screaming about it from the rooftops.
Best Way to Make Grandma Jealous
Chicken Noodle Soup at Grove East Provisions
3101 Arsenal Street, 314-802-7090
Barry Kinder is a man of many skills. He's a musician, a building rehabber, a cook, a business owner, and, starting a year or so ago, an artisanal baker. However, the one title that trumps them all is the king of chicken noodle soup. Since opening his corner bodega, Grove East Provisions, three years ago, Kinder has been consistently making the city's most delectable chicken noodle soup. It's so authentically homey, he should be giving pro tips to everyone's grandmothers. His rendition is as classic as it comes: a clean, flavor-packed broth that tastes like it's been simmering for days; carrots, celery and onions; hearty noodles and massive hunks of pulled chicken. It's basically a meal in a cup. Paired with a slice of crusty, wood-fired bread, this is the sort of pure comfort usually enjoyed sitting on grandma's divan wrapped in an afghan — only better. Just don't tell her.
Best Au Jus
"The Dip" at Eat Sandwiches
3148 Morganford Road, 314-797-8188
Byron Smith had had enough. "Why, in a city filled with great sandwich shops, was it so hard to find a good French drip?" he lamented, finally deciding to take matters into his own hands. Together with a few of his friends, Smith opened Eat Sandwiches in the heart of Morganford's business district. It was a sandwich shop, sure, but it was also an excuse to give his town a taste of what a French dip should be. The result of his efforts is a heaping beast of a sandwich that makes you painfully aware of what you've been missing all this time. House roasted beef is shaved thin and stuffed between slices of crusty bread with a light, airy interior that is perfect as an au jus sponge. Raw red onions and pungent horseradish sauce add bite, and Prairie Breeze cheddar cheese gives the sandwich creamy and salty zip. Granted you don't usually find cheese on a traditional French dip, but Smith didn't set out to do things according to tradition; he set out to make the best. That, he did.
- MABEL SUEN
- Ceviche at Fairview Lounge.
Best Culinary Surprise
Gas Station Ceviche at Fairview Lounge
10616 Lincoln Trail, Fairview Heights, Illinois; 618-394-8904
If the idea of eating ceviche from a Metro East gas station shakes you to your core, well, it should. Anyone with an iota of self-preservation would be crazy not to question the idea of noshing on a platter of basically raw fish from a place that's a full day's drive from the coast — and that makes its money on motor fuel and lotto. However, if you are brave enough to dive into the ceviche at Fairview Lounge, you'll be rewarded with the metro area's most pleasant surprise. Owners Lorena and Abdallah Abraham didn't think the idea for authentic Peruvian food inside of a gas station was all that odd. In Lorena's native Peru, it's not uncommon to find small business, roadside stands or even petrol marts serving up high-quality cuisine. Though they had originally planned to serve American bar food, the pair were inspired by a trip back to Lorena's homeland to instead create a menu of authentic delicacies. Of course, ceviche had to be part of that vision, and the Abrahams do not disappoint. Shockingly fresh pieces of whitefish, dressed in mouth-puckering lime juice, are flecked with fiery serrano peppers, then dressed with cilantro and shaved red onions. As a bonus, the dish is plated with a side of cancha, a traditional dish of soured corn that tastes like a light corn nut. It's the second best accompaniment to the Fairview Lounge's ceviche — the first is courage.
Best Salad Dressing
Creamy Garlic Dressing at Frank & Helen's Pizzeria
8111 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-997-0666
Dining at Frank & Helen's is an exercise in difficult decision making. Pizza or steak? Broasted chicken or chicken spedini? Cheesy bread or cheese sticks? Thankfully, in the midst of these mind-spinning choices, there's one question that answers itself: What type of salad dressing would you like? If the house creamy garlic dressing is not what immediately comes to mind, this is obviously your first time dining at the six-decades-old institution. For as long as it's been around, the landmark University City pizzeria has been smothering its salads in a glorious nectar so pungent as to bring a tear to the eye. The creamy concoction is basically garlic in liquid form. It can make your nose run the same way a hot chile pepper can — but you'll be so intoxicated by its magnificence, you might hardly notice. There simply isn't a better topper for a bowl of iceberg lettuce, Provel cheese, croutons and a tomato wedge, and the servers know this. That's why they serve it on the side in a ramekin big enough to cover three salads (it still counts as an individual portion at Frank & Helen's). If there's any left after you've made your salad into creamy garlic soup, perhaps use the remainder as a condiment for the restaurant's cheese garlic bread, pizza crust, chicken or whatever else is in your line of sight. Or better yet, why not cut to the chase and simply shoot it straight from the ramekin? We won't judge.
Best Brain Freeze
Dark & Fancy at Ices Plain & Fancy
2256 South 39th Street, 314-601-3604
If they start giving out Nobel prizes for food and drink, the first recipient should be the person who came up with the idea for boozy ice cream. It's genius, really: pair something that hurts your brain with something that numbs it, cancelling out the bad parts of downing ice cream at lightning speed by adding alcohol to the equation. Nowhere is this win-win more apparent than at Shaw's Ices Plain & Fancy, where the beloved "Dark & Stormy" cocktail has been turned into a luxuriously creamy treat. Here, Goslings' dark rum (enough to make you feel it, at that) is blended with ginger beer and the parlor's signature Nitro vanilla ice cream into a spicy, brown-sugary confection that tastes like the best parts of childhood and adulthood in one frosty bite. Forget a food and drink prize; give the folks at Ices Plain & Fancy the Nobel for Peace. Something this tasty is good enough to make the whole world sing kumbaya.
- JENNIFER SILVERBERG
- "The Flying Pig" at Guerrilla Street Food.
Best Use of Pork
Flying Pig at Guerrilla Street Food
3559 Arsenal Street, 529-1328
When it first rolled onto the scene in 2009, Guerrilla Street Food dazzled diners by showing us that fine-dining flavors could come from a humble food truck. Fast-forward six years and two brick and mortars later and Joel Crespo and Brian Hardesty's Filipino phenom is still making us fall in love. This staying power is evident in the fast-casual eatery's signature dish, the "Flying Pig." It's so delicious, we could have eaten it every day of the last six years and still not be tired of it. How could one ever grow weary of pulled pork shoulder, roasted low and slow for twelve hours with its juices, together with sriracha, hoisin and tangy calamansi, soaking into fragrant jasmine rice with a fried garlic, black sesame and scallion garnish? To cap it all off, a luxurious, 63-degree egg the texture of burrata oozes over the pork like a silken blanket. On a menu that's a celebration of one delicious dish after another, the fact that the "Flying Pig" has been able to remain Guerrilla Street Food's most beloved mainstay speaks volumes. Undoubtedly, we'll be saying the same thing six years from now.
Best Tribute to New Orleans
Muffuletta at Blues City Deli
2438 McNair Avenue, 314-773-8225
If the idea of spending a frigid afternoon dodging beer-splashed beads (and god knows what else) while trying to avoid flashers does not sound like your idea of fun, there is a much better way to honor our city's NOLA sisterhood than Soulard Mardi Gras. Just head a few blocks over to Benton Park, order a muffuletta at Blues City Deli and let your thoughts drift about 700 miles down the Mississippi. This beloved sandwich shop may be St. Louis through and through, but its ode to the classic New Orleans muffuletta is as authentic as you get this far north. Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and mozzarella are stuffed between two slices of crusty, sesame-coated bread. The key, though, is the olive spread, a piquant and chunky tapenade of equal parts Kalamata olives, Sicilian olives and spicy giardiniera that is so liberally applied there's no way to avoid making a mess. Owner Vince Valenza took his St. Louis stewardship of this famous sandwich seriously, calling the folks at the famed Central Grocery in New Orleans, widely considered the axis mundi of all things muffuletta, to find out how to make one properly. His research paid off in the form of what may be the best way St. Louis honors its NOLA brothers and sisters.
Best Use of Caramel
Pork Ribs at Vista Ramen
2609 Cherokee Street, 314-797-8250
When you read the description of the pork ribs at Vista Ramen, you might think you've found a misprint. Crab caramel? It seems like an odd mix considering we're not used to seeing the ubiquitous, brown-sugary ice cream and bread pudding topper outside of its dessert applications. Leave it to the brilliant Chris Bork to expand our ideas of flavor even further than he's expanded notions of what a ramen shop can be. For his signature pork ribs, Bork marries butter, sugar, fish sauce and crab paste to make a concoction so sticky and funky, it's like James Brown dipped in a honey pot. Bork uses the sauce to gild his fall-off-the-bone pork ribs, and each bite explodes with umami, salt, sea and sugar. It's an intense flavor experience, but Bork mitigates the richness with crushed peanuts for texture and sprigs of cilantro for refreshment. That some of the best ribs in town come from a place calling itself a noodle shop might be shocking, but it's this sort of unexpected genius that makes Vista one of the most exciting restaurants in the city.