Cheap Eats ’09
How to eat like a king on the pay of a pauper? Simple: Get to know these 35 people, places, items, and trends that make St. Louis a bargain-dining dynamo.
Photographs by Katherine Bish and Josh Monken
If nothing else, this month’s cover feature is as timely as any article could be. Anyone with a wallet and an appetite has lately been forced to radically change his dining habits—“twice a month” has become the new “twice a week.”
Even then, we find ourselves gravitating to the Tuesday-night burger special at the local bar and grill. But as the following pages will attest, that’s not all bad. We’ve compiled a list of people, places, items, and trends to seek out—enough to keep you misering for months. By then we just may be out of the weeds, conjuring a forgotten smile as we flip out that well-rested corporate AmEx card.
The London Tea Room
Forget prissy, pseudo-British, Americanized versions. High tea is correctly presented here: a substantial lunch. In a beautiful, cozy re-creation of a London teahouse, sandwiches, pastries, and soups accompany a variety of excellent teas. Croque-monsieur, with ham, melted cheese, and Dijon on thick bread, plus a cup of smoky Lapsang souchong, is a wonderful meal made better by your opportunity to quietly ridicule the Brits for the ridiculous habit of adding milk to their tea. 1520 Washington, 314-241-6556, thelondontearoom.com.
Banh Mi So #1
Voted “Best Affordable Dining Where You Can’t Pronounce a Word on the Menu,” this is a local favorite for Vietnamese cuisine. Just point and whatever you get will be delicious; our favorites are steamed noodles with pork slices and greens or lemongrass-scented, charbroiled beef. The shredded pork on a French baguette—a banh mi—is a taste of Saigon in Dutchtown. Pho here is fragrant and fun. Everything’s cooked to order, so meals are leisurely. 4071 S. Grand, 314-353-0545, banhmiso1.com.
U-City Grill: Bibimbob ($5.95)
At U-City Grill, a limited Korean menu has been pleasing those in the know for years. And since we’re in the know, it’s the classic bibimbob that’s been pleasing us. Literally translating to “mixed rice,” the bowl of sticky rice generously topped with fresh zucchini, carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, bulgogi beef, hot sauce, and a fried egg can become an affordable addiction. 6696 Enright, 314-721-3073, no website.
At Felix’s in Dogtown, owner Steve Kolb is giving something away…all the time. To promote breakfast, he gave it away for a month; to get the word out on his barbecued ribs, he gave them away on Wednesdays. No such thing as a free lunch? Don’t give him any ideas. 6335 Clayton, 314-645-6565, felixsrestaurant.com.
Satisfying, affordable, dressed up in more ways than a Trophy Wife Barbie, noodles are a new local cheap-eats sensation. Try the fiery chicken, vegetables, and egg noodles at Bobo Noodle House. Or the savory, seafood-studded lo mein at the homey Chinese Noodle Café. Classic Hong Kong noodles abound at Wonton King. And steamy, fragrant pho swirled in broth is more than a meal at Pho Grand—it’s a life-affirming experience.
Taqueria El Jalapeno
If a mustachioed jalapeño in a sombrero on the window doesn’t say muy sabrosa, what does? What may be the area’s best taqueria is tucked into a forlorn strip mall in St. Ann. It’s the usual fare: carne asada, pork, spicy chorizo, all tumbled into hand-sized corn tortillas. Fried tripe—trust us—is crunchy, salty-sweet, and delicious. But with fewer than a couple of dozen seats, the place often demands a wait. 10009 St. Charles Rock Road, 314-426-9951, no website.
The Good Pie: Lunch Special ($8.95)
Tired of those boring soup-and-salad lunch specials? Head over to The Good Pie, and choose one of five 8-inch Neapolitan pies, plus a house or Caesar salad. Our fave is the mast’nicola, with mouth-watering salty pancetta perfectly complementing the authentic, blistered-yet-chewy crust. 3137 Olive, 314-289-9391, thegoodpie.com.
Cyrano’s: Cornmeal Dusted Tilapia ($9.95)
When we heard the Cornmeal Dusted Tilapia at Cyrano’s had begun outselling the Cleopatra, that 50-year-old, legendary behemoth of an ice-cream sundae, quite frankly we suspected a fish tale, so we ordered one: two crunchy fillets perched on a cushion of greens, a cone of pickled red onions, and a squeezle of aioli…the perfect portion and a sensible value. Did we leave it at that? Of course not: We ordered a Cleopatra. 603 E. Lockwood, 314-963-3232, cyranos.com.
Maggie and Nick Collida
Family-owned The Piccadilly held down the corner of Piccadilly and Manhattan avenues in Maplewood since the last depression, then renovated and reopened a couple of years back—just in time for the next one! Third-gen owners Maggie and Nick Collida and their efficient staff are justifiably proud of the made-from-scratch menu—we know of one regular who hasn’t made it beyond the skillet-fried chicken. Our précis: great food, great ’tude. 7201 Picadilly, 314-646-0016, thepiccadilly.com.
Yes, it’s a chain. In a mall. But it had us with the “Same Day Service Available” sign on the wall. The atmosphere’s faux-’50s fun. Burgers are thick, explosively juicy, loaded however you like, from guacamole to coleslaw. Baskets of salty skin-on fries and crunchy, crusty onion rings are mandatory. Shakes and malts are fine, but it’s worth a visit just for the glorious rich wonder of a real egg cream. (Warning: No Coke—Pepsi.) 291 Chesterfield Mall, 636-532-3210, cheeburger.com.
India Palace: Kashmiri Nan ($3.95)
On-menu, India Palace’s Kashmiri Nan is stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins, and cherries. Off-menu, those cherries are maraschinos, and somehow, along with the crunchy nuts baked inside the warm flatbread, their chewy texture is one high-dose shot of corn syrup that totally works. 4534 N. Lindbergh, 314-731-3333, indiapalaceairport.com.
Rachael Ray’s gotten less fawning TV attention, and the chef’s contrived “outlaw” image is silly. But this is serious good eats. Prime rib is roasted over oak coals out back. Paella is laden with seafood and ruote pasta wheels. Sandwiches are similarly phenomenal, like the strip steak slathered in chili mayo. Take note of daily specials, like dense crab cakes with a spill of piquant green pepper–chili sauce. Did we mention Bare Knuckle Stout on tap? We’re guessing chef’s choice. 5510 Virginia, 314-351-4500. ironbarley.com.
Quit your yammering about finding “real Chinese food,” and try it at this enjoyable eatery run by a traditionally trained Tianjin chef. Talk about affordably exotic… We’re talking Shandong quick-sautéed pork with chives and the Guangdong style of sliced fish with vegetables. We’ve never seen Dongpo pork—the richest pig you’ll ever eat—anywhere else locally. Noodles are fiery with Szechuan chilies, though Americanized dishes are also available. If you want it real, this place delivers. 7930 Olive, 314-863-7188, no website.
Crepes in the City
Inspired name. They serve crepes. In the city. Big, fluffy, airy, papery crepes. Layered with love in the form of, say, salmon, onions, dill sour cream, capers, and spinach. Or how about bacon, Gruyère, onions, and meaty portobello slices? Or dessert crepes stuffed with berries or bananas or piled with strawberries and dusted with powdered sugar, chocolate syrup, and a dollop of nutritious, life-giving Nutella? Intimate and attractive, it’s the best informal breakfast/brunch/sometimes dinner spot in town. 500 N. 14th, 314-436-1900, crepesinthecity.com.
Blues City Deli
Muffulettas come layered with salami, ham, and mozzarella and dripping with olive salad. Roast beef glistens in its juices, piled on bread with tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, and mayo. Meatballs in marinara sauce are packed into a seeded baguette. Italian beef on a hoagie meets sweet roasted peppers. Sandwiches here are spectacularly lavish. Beer selections rotate continually. The scene is brick wall–casual and invariably crowded, with frequent live blues performances providing the mournful, fitting soundtrack of your life in this deservedly popular eatery. 2438 McNair, 314-773-8225, bluescitydeli.com.
Woofies: Big Herm ($5.49)
When a hot dog requires two buns, “big” might be an understatement. But that just makes Woofies’ quarter-pound Big Herm that much easier to share. 1919 Woodson, 314-426-6291, no website.
Sugo’s Spaghetteria: Lasagna ($10)
You’d think a brick-sized, $10 order of lasagna would contain tinny tomato sauce, cheap cottage cheese, and way too many noodles. Think again. Our nomination for Best Cheapest Lasagna in an Expensive Zip Code goes to Sugo’s Spaghetteria in Frontenac. It’s Mary Rose Del Pietro’s decades-old recipe: chunky homemade sugo, large nubs of ricotta, a handful of Parmesan, and a more-than-generous portion of ground beef and pork sausage. And the noodles? Just like the price, they’re perfect. 10419 Clayton, 314-569-0400, sugosspaghetteria.com.
The location—within walking distance for thousands of workers in downtown Clayton—doesn’t hurt. Neither do the wood-fired ovens, from which come beautiful, char-flecked crusts topped with gooey, sweet mozzarella, fresh basil pesto, spicy pepperoni coins, oven-roasted tomatoes—all the necessities of la vita pizza. Meat-stuffed paninis and calzones, along with yeasty flatbread sandwiches, pastas, and greens like the pine nut–spiked spinach salad, make this the spot for a quick lunch or a leisurely dinner. 41 N. Central, 314-727-1333, ilvicino.com.
All You Can Eat…but Made to Order
Flaco’s Cocina goes loco at lunchtime, six days a week, with several varieties of tacos, enchiladas, homemade pork tamales, plus the requisite beans and rice, all freshly made to order for a paltry $7.95—and that includes chips and salsa. At Blue Ocean Sushi, chopsticks get some overtime: AYCE sushi is available at both lunch and dinner, tiered from $15 per person (for 14 items) to $30 per person (for 60 items). We can roll with that.
Few problems cannot be solved over a meal at this local, inevitably packed landmark. Tackle world peace with a dollop of baked, cheese-swaddled macaroni. The almost-sweet pork steak smothered in brown gravy probably cures the common cold. The fried chicken will bring your child’s grades up, and the moist, fragrant corn bread and peppery, porky greens, with a fat wedge of peach pie afterward, will have the climate back in its groove before next weekend. 4270 Manchester, 314-371-0304; one other location in Dellwood, no website.
Little boxes of batter-dipped heaven come through the window of this once–a–Dairy Queen joint in a parking lot. Picnic-table seating offers a pastoral view of the carwash. The chicken, fried to order, is all smoking hot, golden and crackling, the meat beyond juicy. Sides of tangy coleslaw or fluffy mashed potatoes and creamy gravy fill out a menu in a place short on ambience but way long on great food. 449 S. Church, St. Peters, 636-278-2969.
Riverside Café: Big Biscuit Breakfast ($6)
Your first thought at the Riverside Café will be “Are these prices correct?” Then you notice they are consistent…consistently cheap. Our favorite item is the BBB: a split biscuit, sausage patties, fried eggs, two slices of cheese, a ladle of sausage gravy, and potatoes for $6. Not cheap enough? The price includes coffee or tea. 7704 Ivory, 314-544-7711, no website.
David Moore might not be a full-time employee of Local Harvest Café—his daughter, Clara, is the chef—but for those of us who regularly pull in for a Saturday brunch of local food, he’s the bigger-than-life personality we look forward to. Singing along to the radio and jovially teasing his loyal customers, he gives the wacky kind of service that is simply endearing. 3137 Morganford, 314-772-8815, localharvestcafe.com.
La Vallesana: Torta al Pastor ($6)
The word “Torta” tops the sandwich board, it’s spelled out boldly above the door, and for you visual learners, a huge torta mural graces the side of this movie-set-perfect taqueria. Ya get the message? Our choice is the al pastor: marinated, grilled pork with onion, lettuce, tomato, cilantro, and a taste of sweet, sweet pineapple on a wondrous, warm bolillo roll. Pour on some fiery green salsa, and it’s zapateo time… And you thought you couldn’t dance. 2801 Cherokee, 314-776-4223, no website.
Five Guys Burgers
It takes five of them, but these guys get it right. The menu’s simple. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers. With bacon, without. Grilled onions and mushrooms, green peppers, mustard relish; toppings are your call. What distinguishes these foil-wrapped beauties is the superb meat, crunchy at the edges, meaty and tender inside. Buns are soft, Hawaiian-style bread. Crispy Cajun fries make the perfect accompaniment. Tubs of free peanuts make the wait for your order bearable. 1070 Town and Country Crossing, 636-527-9300; one other location in Chesterfield, fiveguys.com.
The fattest gyros in town. Dinners like lemon-tangy souvlaki kebabs and beef-stuffed grape leaves. Infernos of melted saganaki cheese. Baked falafel. But what really makes this taverna special is the late-night menu. Weekends until 1 a.m. you can get your pita dipped into platters of creamy hummus or baba ghanouj or munch on spanakopita, its crispy phyllo layered with spinach and feta. It’s a happy slice of Greece stuck in the heart of The Hill. 2225 Macklind, 314-773-4455, anthoninos.com.
Simply Thai: Grilled Pork and Sticky Rice ($6.95)
At Simply Thai, a basket of sticky rice alongside five skewers of succulent, marinated grilled pork is the closest you’ll get to hunkering down at Bourdain’s side in the streets of Bangkok and eating like the natives. 2470 N. Highway 67, 314-921-2179, no website.
10th St. Italian
Proudly a Provel-free zone, this unassuming downtown lunch/early-dinner spot turns out affordable Italian fare like a marinara sauce–slathered meatball sandwich on ciabatta, spaghetti in pesto sauce, and a four-cheese manicotti that’s death-row-last-meal good. Basil mayo and focaccia make for a splendid Tuscan BLT. Wine by the glass. House-made chocolate-chunk cookies. It’s bright, convivial, with a no-tip counter service that makes the place affordable even for you hard-luck Bernie Madoff types. Countians experience a wider menu at its second location. 504 N. Tenth, 314-241-9988; one other location in Valley Park, 10thstreetitalian.com.
Last April, Jim Fiala had a crazy idea to offer a four-course, prix fixe dinner for $25 at his flagship restaurant, The Crossing. One year later, his lunacy has become widespread and terminal—Fiala’s sister restaurants Liluma and Acero offer the same low-budget deal every night of the week. Maybe the biggest feather in his toque is that no competitor has matched that price.
The cutlery’s as plastic as the upholstery here, but the Cajun-Creole offerings are deliciously authentic. A red beans–and–rice perfume scents the air. Classics, like chicken and sausage jambalaya, a chocolate-brown roux of crawfish étouffée, and fried catfish are the exquisite taste of New Orleans. Dirty rice, peppered pork chops, and shrimp and oyster po’ boys will have you longing for the municipal corruption, garish beads, and institutionalized indolence of the real Big Easy. 2698 Technology, O’Fallon, 636-561-8878, louisiana-cafe.com.
Vegadeli: Chipotle Mango Burger ($6.25)
We find it odd that conservative Chesterfield is home to the only vegan “deli” in town, as well as a no-meat “burger” that we find, quite frankly, delicious—and “we” are carnivores. Neither soy nor seitan, the chipotle mango burger typifies Vegadeli’s organic, made-from-scratch philosophy. Wheat germ, brown rice, black beans, tomatoes, and corn could signal an “I’ll pass,” but when combined with a standard burger garnish and a kicky dose of their secret sauce, it’s an about-time example of something both healthy and tasty. 177 Hilltown Village, 636-536-6938, vegadeli.com.
222 Artisan Bakery: Goshen Coffee and a Cinnamon Roll ($4.95)
A fantastic cup of locally roasted Goshen organic coffee is reason enough to trek to 222 Artisan Bakery at least once, but pairing that cup with one of its flaky, puff-pastry cinnamon rolls will have you MapQuesting shortcuts to Edwardsville. 222 N. Main, Edwardsville, Ill., 618-659-1122, 222bakery.com.
The slinger is an eggy, potatoey, chili- and cheese-blanketed, doctor-recommended palliative for most of life’s problems. Fill your prescription here with a magnificent version that covers the plate, or go for the breakfast burrito, an omelet, or their legendary banana waffles. Lunch on a Reuben on grilled marble rye, a club sandwich, or a burger, along with a shake or malt; diner cuisine lives here, amidst booths and tables and a genuine Formica counter where you can watch your meal be conjured. 9638 Olive, 314-995-9945, no website.
Like previous Shu Feng owner In Soo Jung, Liling Wemhoener will take your order like a hurricane just blew through, but instead of scowling disapprovingly, she’ll treat you like a stern but loving mother, eager to hear what you’ve been doing since your last visit. 8435 Olive, 314-983-0099, shufengstl.com.
Addressing St. Louis’ tragic deli shortage, McLozzi steps up. A classic redbrick corner joint—with attractive outdoor seating—it serves standards, like the Cuban, meatloaf, and tuna-salad sandwiches. Specialties, like the roasted turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce on toasted multigrain or the chicken, ham, and cheese Cordon Bleu packed in a baguette, make this Benton Park eatery a standout. 2870 McNair, 314-773-2621, myspace.com/mclozzi.