At Stella Blues Restaurant & Bar you can order "Ball Park Nachos." These aren't a clever joke, one of those deconstructed dishes that show up on highfalutin menus. These are, as the Stella Blues menu proclaims, nachos just like you used to eat at old Busch Stadium. Just like you can still eat at sports venues across the nation, for that matter.
You get round, salty and ever-so-slightly stale tortilla chips topped with Old El Paso cheese sauce, which keeps its gooey consistency whether hot, cold or (for the true stadium experience) a few degrees south of lukewarm. The nachos come in a white paper tray with red crosshatching, with a small plastic cup of pickled jalapeños on the side.
Really, all that's missing is some dude in a powder-blue Willie McGee jersey, slandering Don Denkinger under his breath.
The "Ball Park Nachos" weren't the best thing I ate at Stella Blues. And Stella Blues certainly doesn't make a big deal about them. They're kind of hidden in a bottom corner of the menu. But as I sat in Stella Blues one night, munching nachos and drinking a cold beer while I waited for my entrée, a blissful smile spread across my face.
I wasn't having a culinary revelation. I wasn't even enjoying my nachos that much now that I was nearing the end. (Once you have to start using the few remaining dry chips to scoop up the ones that got soaked to a mush by the cheese sauce, the thrill of the "Ball Park Nacho" is gone.)
No this wasn't anything deep. I just felt...relaxed. Comfortable.
Stella Blues puts you in that kind of mood. It's a single room, a dozen or so tables surrounding the bar. When it's busy, you might think you've walked into the living room of one of its Tower Grove South neighbors. But thanks to a high ceiling and soothing blue lights, Stella Blues never feels cramped. And its menu pushes enough comfort-food buttons to make you feel downright cozy.
The brief list of entrées includes a generous helping of spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce. The marinara had a sweetness that was too blunt for my taste, but the meatballs were tender and delicately spiced, and the dish came with a Bosco Stick, a thick breadstick stuffed with cheese. Like the nachos, this old standby of middle-school cafeterias and after-school snacks was a guilty pleasure, the breadstick lightly toasted, the cheese product inside molten.
I also tried an excellent serving of fish and chips. Well, the fish was excellent. There were three thick cod filets. The batter was crisp and not too oily, the fish moist and flavorful. The chips, though, were disappointing. The thick-cut fries hadn't crisped up very well and had that bland flavor I usually associate with frozen fries baked in the oven.
The "Stella Burger" was decent, though not a knockout. The patty was so tightly packed that it lacked that deeply pink, juicy center that's the heart of a killer burger. "Stella's BBQ Pork Sandwich," on the other hand, was fantastic. The menu doesn't say so, but this is a Memphis-style barbecue sandwich, with creamy cole slaw on top of shredded pork in a delicious sweet and tangy sauce. It comes between two thick slices of Texas toast, which besides being yummy on its own, is about the only bread that could hold together a sandwich this sloppy.
It's funny that my favorite thing on the menu would be a Memphis specialty. Co-owners Chris Van Hoogstraat and Mike Russo are, in Van Hoogstraat's words, "city boys." Both live nearby, and Russo told me they wanted Stella Blues, their first restaurant venture, to offer Tower Grove South an alternative to ordering pizza or heading to South Grand for dinner.
"There really was no standard American restaurant or bar and grill in the neighborhood," says Russo. "We wanted to offer something different."
Though the Tin Can Tavern is right up the street, Russo does have a point. There's little overlap between the two menus, and I think the two places complement each other nicely. Where the Tin Can feels like a big party, Stella Blues is more like a casual get-together.
The fact that Tower Grove South now has two such places is reason to celebrate.
Stella Blues, the Tin Can Tavern and, a little farther to the west, the Royale, are bellwethers of the gentrification that Tower Grove South is undergoing restaurant-bars that want to appeal to the area's new, younger residents and attract more of the same.
But gentrification is a process, not an end, and one night as I was driving home from Stella Blues, I wondered whether these places would be as appealing, say, five or ten years from now, when the "new" Tower Grove South is more defined, its residents older.
OK I didn't just wonder this. It occurred to me because I drove past the Courtesy Diner, which has sat on its corner through several decades of talk about renewal and gentrification.
On an otherwise quiet Tuesday afternoon, the talk in the Courtesy Diner has turned to the proper way to brick a grill. This is a process as vital and as rote to the short-order cook as making stock or reducing sauce is to the four-star chef.
In my brief and unheralded career as a deli clerk and short-order cook in Ocean City, Maryland, I learned two things. One: Never pour grease down the drain. Two: There's one and only one way to brick a flattop grill.
You wait until the end of a shift, when the flattop is scorching hot. Turn off the grill, then immediately dump a bucket of ice cubes over it. Not cold water. Not ice water. Ice cubes. When the cubes start to melt, put your brick at the upper-left corner of the flattop and, with both hands, drag it straight toward you. Step a brick-length to the right and repeat until you've covered the entire surface. Use a metal scraper to channel all the nasty bits into the drain. If necessary, add more ice cubes and start again, until the flattop gleams as brightly as the day it was installed.
Thankfully, the discussion at the Courtesy is Socratic. The staff seems to be leading a new hire to something like the correct technique. (And there are probably as many "one and only one" ways to brick a grill as there are short-order cooks.) Better yet, the discussion has given my waitress a chance to sneak my breakfast onto the grill before the cleaning.
"This job's going to drive me to drink," she mutters as she hands me my plate. A comedian's perfect beat, then: "Oh, wait, it already has."
The Kingshighway Courtesy Diner is yellowed and tattered around the edges now, like the signs that hang on its walls. One reads, "Prices subject to change... according to customer's attitude." That's why I don't complain when my over-easy eggs come back over-hard. Besides, as long as the hash browns are crisp and golden on top and a bit mushy below, I'm happy.
This is my second visit in three days. Last time I had a double cheeseburger, plain. This double cheeseburger made me more than happy. This double cheeseburger took me back to my childhood, when I was still able to enjoy a McDonald's or Burger King hamburger without guilt. There's something about the combination of the thin patty, the slice of American cheese and the enriched-white-flour bun some kind of alchemy that fuses it into one flavor that isn't ground beef with cheese on bread, but Cheeseburger. A little beefy, a little cheesy, a little sweet, a lot salty.
You can't get that flavor rush many places nowadays. Fast-food burgers are precooked or flame-broiled into briquettes. Most places that tout their burgers are touting the meat, thick and juicy. This is something else entirely. The key, I think, is that grill, the flattop. Restaurant fashions have come and gone, but nothing cooks better on that grill than a thin hamburger patty with a slice of cheese on top.
If you drop by when the grill is being bricked three times every twenty-four hours at the Courtesy Diner, every day for decades you'll have to wait. Don't even think about complaining. Remember the sign. I don't doubt the waitresses will double or triple the cost of your burger.
(It would still be worth it, though.)