Frugal Foodie - Tip Top Food & Spirits
Photograph by Katherine Bish
For a long while, I've thought of Soulard as this sort of wacky, alternate, Bizarro World universe, an enclave for all things capricious (Mad Art? Why, that's a police station–turned–party house!), daffy (automobile?! Pshaw — we travel around our neighborhood by golf cart!) and slightly supernatural (at A-B, hobgoblins create eleventy trebillion bottles of lager every day!).
On the other hand, there's still that brackish aftertaste in my mouth from the six months I actually lived there, a time when my apartment got burglarized twice and my car got stolen once. Then there was the time when someone tried to make off with my friend's dog from outside a market on South 12th Street.
My take on Tip Top Food & Spirits, which opened for business in the area last winter, falls right in line with all that. In my mind, it's a bar and grill that couldn't exist anywhere but Soulard: a hole-in-the-wall dive meets Middle Eastern fast-casual grub. If you're a foodie who likes your off-the-eaten-path discoveries a little on the "rustic" side, then Tip Top is a hoot and a holler, and cheap to boot. The food is not refined, but damn if it isn't different — and you know, why not? You can't keep going back to Applebee's, can you?
The menu is like the physical space itself: small, maybe a little strange, but solid. (Get a load of the stucco and brick finishes on Tip Top's interior walls.) More specifically than just Middle Eastern, Tip Top bills certain items on its bill of fare as Serbian, while others are straight-up bar food and some are a hybrid of both. For example, there is a good ol' American hamburger served on grilled Texas toast and topped with "Serbian slaw," which seems to mean the shredded cabbage has been slathered in an oil-and-vinegar combo rather than in a creamy base. If the item suffers from a case of man-without-a-country syndrome, I couldn't have cared less. I liked it. I downed it with a Budweiser and dubbed it a delicacy.
House specials include "special Serbian sausages" called cevapcici, which the menu spells out phonetically, although it's such a tongue twister that it still doesn't help. (Start practicing now: CHEV-ahp-chee-chee.) They're finger-sized, grilled servings of minced beef (no typical, American, scary sausage encasement here), and they are just delicious, with a unique, light, fresh taste and texture. Served here with tomatoes, white onion, feta and pita spears, they would make a great appetizer to share or a meal for one to hoard. I couldn't get enough of them.
I also devoured the Serbian salad, which contained huge portions of white onion and red peppers, with lesser numbers of cukes and tommies and no lettuce whatsoever. I thought the aggressive combo of all that onion and pepper would be too much for my belly to take; I thought I might get heartburn. Not so. In fact, I gobbled it up.
When I say that I practically laughed my way through Tip Top's menu, I mean that in a good way. How else to react to a still-infant eatery labeling its fried chicken "world famous"? But this house special, too, I adored. I was worried at first by the look of the chicken skin — no glisten, all bread crumbs and black pepper — but the juiciness of the meat on the inside more than made up for a lack of grease on the outside. And then there are the hot wings, the T-ravs, the Caesar salad, the fried fish sandwich — you know, the carrying cards of any Soulard saloon. Because hey, why not?