Monday, October 23, 2017

Eating BIG in St. Louis Pt. 3

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Seeing whats new in Da Lou

It had been a while since I found myself down in St. Louis but a friend of the wife had a wedding we attended this past summer. We took a ride down for the wedding which was wonderful and about as St. Louis as it gets with Imo's Pizza, Fried Rice, Ribs, Buttercake and more being served at the ceremony which took place at the quirky City Museum. Of course there was some Nelly as well. We had the luxury of staying at my friends place and he knows his way around there like I know my way around here so of course we would eat real well. As far as cities it's size go, STL packs a punch when it comes to the good stuff. Even though we only had two nights we still put a dent in the scene.
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Pastaria

Our first stop upon arrival was actually a schlep out to da burbs. Pastaria is Chef Gerard Craft's ode to pasta. It's located in the rich suburb of Clayton where it sits in a large, light space. They recently opned a location in Nashville just in case anyone finds themselves down there. We took a seat at the bar and peeked the menu which has quite a large selection of different pasta choices. We started out with an order of the Crispy Risotto Balls and they rocked. Fresh from the fryer and full of flavor.

Crispy Risotto Balls

Moving onto the pasta we were rec'd the Bucatini All’ Amatriciana by the bartender and he was very enthusiastic in doing so, thus I had to see for myself. Well done. It was pretty much what I was expecting. The pasta was al dente with the rest of the ingredients working in perfect harmony with it.

Bucatini All’ Amatriciana
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Nixta

Moving on we had reservations on our first night at Nixta. This was the place I was most looking forward to trying. So much so I made the reservations not long after I learned of the wedding and it's location in St. Louis. Some time before our visit Nixta was named one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country according to Bon Appetit. This is Chef Ben Poremba's 5th place in St. Louis. The award winning chef is highly respected in the field. While Poremba owns Nixta he isn't/wasn't the lead chef. That was Chef Tello Carreon and I use was bc he left not long after our visit. Too bad bc his food was fantastic. Maybe St. Louis will gain yet another great spot should he open his own place.

 Hand-Made Empanadas (cochinita pibil, salsa loca)

 Flautas (local mushrooms, spinach, three cheeses, mushroom crema)

It was tempting to just order the entire menu as all 13 items on it sounded delicious. The dishes were inspired by Chef Carreon's hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico. We ended up getting about half of those and there really wasnt a dud in the bunch. The empanadas were as delicate an empanada as I can remember but they still held up perfectly. Perhaps the best part about them was the fantastic black bean spread that came decorated on the plate. Some of the best empanadas I've ever ate. The same can be said for the flautas which were full of fungus flavor and I mean that in the best way possible.

 Pulpo (crispy octopus, fried potato, charred lettuce, mole almendrado)

Moving on I thought an octopus dish was good but just not up to the level of good the previous two dishes were. For instance I wouldn't have ordered it again like I would have done for the first two plates of food we tried. However when it came to the lamb tacos I was tempted to get two more orders so I could have four more. You'll see those on my year end 'best of' list in the tacos section. Lastly was a plate of duck carnitas that came with 3/4 handmade corn tortillas. By my estimation it would be hard to mess up this dish. What's not to love about fried duck? In tortillas nonetheless.

 Lamb Tacos (braised lamb shoulder, guajillo salsa, herb salad)

Duck Carnitas (pulled duck, apple-poblano slaw, house salsas)
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Union Loafers

I heard some wonderful things about a new pizza place that was must stop. But not for St. Louis style pie. St. Louis is no doubt about it a bread town with some great bakers supplying loafs to the masses. Union Loafer is a bakery that started to serve pizza at some point. That pizza is served at night (sandwiches by day) and it's gained plenty of fans since it's debut. They serve a NY style pie that comes with a char job like that at Pequod's. As you can imagine it's the dough that shines. This pizza was cooked perfectly to the point where anymore and it was overdone. This is the way I like it.

Pepperoni Pizza at Union Loafers
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Yapi Subs

St. Louis has a big Bosnian population and they've started to open restaurants over the last five years or so. I searched around for the best cevapi and lots of spots popped up but this one stood out. I think it was the fact it doubled as a sub shop and it was open late that did it. Yapi was the perfect stop for some post cocktail sausages. Cevapi are skinless beef sausages and big in countries like Bosnia and Croatia. They typically come served with a butter like blend called kajmak that's made from cheese. The Cevapi at Yapi are loaded with spices particularly black pepper. The food was delicious and the service was friendly. It's the type of place I wish we had in Chicago. Next time I'll try a sub.

Cevapi at Yapi
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Gioia's Deli

I may or may not have visited this place years ago. I wanna say I did but there's no evidence of my doing so. Either way I knew about it before they won the 2017 James Beard Award for being an 'American Classic'. But then when they won it further peaked my interest and I made sure to stop in and document this trip. Gioia's is located in the extremely Italian 'The Hill' neighborhood. It was built in 1918 and it still stands in the same place today. There's lots of spots like this in the neighborhood but these guys have a loyal following for their sandwiches. Particularly the hot salami. They have quite a few options but as I heard the people before me ordering it became apparent the thick cut hot salami was the way to go. It's only hot in temp so if you're not big on heat you need not worry. Even though I'm not big on St. Louis style pizza I decided to get my sandwich with provel cheese blending in with the other locals in line. The cheese didn't do anything as far as damaging this sandwich. It was one to remember for sure. In fact I still think about this one. I'll be returning here each trip in.

Hot Salami Sandwich at Gioia's Deli
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Clementine's Creamery

There's a great local food publication in Missouri called Feast Mag. It focuses on all the current food trends in St. Louis, Kansas City, and some vacation destinations in-state. She saw an article about boozy ice cream and wanted to get some on what was a hot and humid august day. Clementine's sits in a historic building and has the classic charm of an old time ice cream parlor. But this place is new school when it comes to it's flavors. Some of which include booze. I sampled an alcohol free scoop of buttercake that was every bit as decadent as the local specialty is when eaten in cake form. She had a bourbon based flavor I cant remember but it blended up well. You could barely taste booze.

Boozy Ice Cream at Clementine's
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Bing Bing

Over the last year or two the Chinese street food known as Jianbing has gotten very popular. We had a spot in Chicago's Richland Food Court but the guy disappeared which is a shame bc his jianbing was fire. Admittedly it was the only jianbing I've ever had so I made it a point to try this new place called Bing Bing over by University Village. Here they're offering two kinds of classic Jianbing and you can stuff it with a whole bunch of things. The classic way of eating these Chinese breakfast crepes is with nothing but a few sauces, herbs, and crackers inside the rolled up crepes. Here they let you stuff meats into them but I liked the original way when I tried so that's what I rolled with here.

Shandong Style

Bing Bing offers their jianbing in two different ways. "Shandong style jianbing is a yellow corn, soybean and wheat flour-based crepe with scrambled egg, sesame, scallions, cilantro, lettuce, Chinese pickles and crunchy wonton. Tianjin-style jianbing is a mung bean, wheat and rice flour-based crepe." I got the traditional shandong style with traditional sauce and enjoyed it. Maybe not quite as good as that guy long gone from Chinatown. But still it was something I wish I had easier access to. My buddy got the Tianjin style with crispy chicken. It was good but my hunch was right in that they're better without the meat which is the the way they're ate on the streets of China.

Tianjin Style Jianbing at Bing Bing
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Mac's Local Eats

Out of all the stops from this trip this is the spot I would first rec to someone asking for a spot to eat in STL. Mac's Local Eats reminds of the type of spot you'd find in a place like Austin. It's run by a guy (Mac) who's a butcher turned restaurateur. He started off supplying meats and soon decided to start cooking and selling them too. He runs his station out of a local watering hole called the Tamm Avenue Grill. It's the perfect marriage as his upscale bar food is some of the best food I've ate this year. Just look at this French Dip with pork switched for beef. It was every bit as good as it looks.

French Pig Sandwich at Mac's Local Eats

Chris McKenzie aka Mac grew up eating the Steak N' Shake style smashed burgers I love so much. Apparently he shares that love bc that's the go-to item at his establishment. Dry Aged beef is smashed crispy and as always with this style the only way to go is a double. I was tempted by a pimento cheese offering however I thought it was appropriate to go classic on my first try. Best burger I've had in a while. The type that can only be made by someone who shares a similar passion.

Double Cheeseburger with Mustard, Onion, Pickles

My buddy kept going on and on about what he described as the best cheesecake in the world. I'm not a big cheesecake guy but he knows his stuff and this cake made by a sibling of one of Mac's friends is said to be as good as the burgers. I tried it and it was delicious. Great way to end your meal here.

Famous Cheesecake at Mac's Local Eats
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Milquetoast

Two things big in the food world right now. Heck make it three. 1) Scandinavian cooking. 2) Open Faced Sandwiches and or 3) sandwiches served on toast. Milque Toast is the kind of spot emblematic of St. Louis these days. It's cute and it's hip and it's got some food food to boot. They're doing fresh milk and sandwiches served on toast. It's not exactly Smørrebrød but it's similar. One way they're different is in size. These are some big ass sandwiches. Pic'd below is a beef summer sausage special topped with caramelized onions, and some crumbly cheese. The bread was fresh.

Smørrebrød at Milquetoast

I had to get the gravlax option and it too was delicious. This place has a great outdoor dining area and while service was a bit slow the food and housemade teas were terrific. This is one of those spots that would fit in pretty much anywhere from NYC to LA. Great stop on a sunny day.

Grvlax and Cucumber at Milquetoast
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The Taco & Ice Cream Joint

Here's a place I saw in that Feast Magazine I mentioned earlier. Paletas (Mexican Popsicles) and Paleterias (Mexican ice cream shops) are big right now and tacos will always be big so the people behind a local supermercado opened this place slanging both tacos and ice cream. Awesome. It's a huge open space and they have a ton of options in paletas, ice cream, and tacos. I got a couple tacos and they were ok. Not the best but by no means bad. What I liked about them was the supersized condiment bar that allowed you put whatever you wanted on them. Paletas hit the spot.

Cochinita Pibil (L) Carne Asada (R) with Watermelon Paletas
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Peacemaker Lobster & Crab 

Last stop before heading back to Chicago was a spot in the neighborhood that my friend loves. Last trip in we didn't get a chance to check out Peacemaker so we made sure to do so this time. In previous posts I've talked of St. Louis' deep connections to New Orleans. It was founded by some brothers from Nola. It has the second biggest Mardi Gras party in the country and there's handfuls of Cajun/Creole and Nola style cooking spots found all over town. Peacemaker is one of them.

a peek inside 

This place is as well designed as anyplace I've been to. I loved the light and the fact it felt so stylish. We opted to sit outside and it was like we were in a little private garden out in front. We did some good damage and bc my buddy is a regular here we were comped some steamed shrimp as well as dessert. After a starter of fresh steamed, well spiced shrimp me and her got some oysters. I forget where from but they were also fresh. Hush Puppies would also hit the spot. So far, so good.

Steamed Shrimp

Fresh Shucked Oysters at Peacemaker

Hush Puppies at Peacemaker 

Peacemaker has quite a few Po' Boy selections as well as lobster rolls. While I'm always down for a Po' Boy especially one like the fried oyster namesake option the wife got, I opted for a lobster roll. I hadn't had one all summer and it seemed like the perfect day to do so. I think I made the right call. It's not the lobster that's hard to mimic in a good lobster roll but rather the bread. As I said this is a big baking town so it's no surprise to find they have the buttered roll here down pat. That paired with big chunks of lobster and some fresh fried chips made in-house made for a great lunch. To end they sent  some homemade Maine style whoopie pies. If you need a slightly upscale spot in STL go here.

Peacemaker Po' Boy at Peacemaker

Lobster Roll at Peacemaker

Whoopie Pies
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Note: Please use google for addresses. Previous posts on St. Louis found HERE. See ya next time!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bonci

-Grubbing in Chicago
New to the 'Scene'

I know you have all been patiently waiting for my thoughts on Bonci. So I thought I better feed you them now. Bonci is one of Rome's most famous pizzerias and they recently opened their first location outside of Rome right here in Chicago. Located on Sangamon off Randolph. Parking isn't that bad.

Roman Favorite now found Chicago 

So for those who have never eaten pizza in Rome they have a style all their own. It's similar to bakery pizza in that they come cut in different shapes and sizes depending on how much you want. It's sold by the weight. Bonci is well known for their eye popping toppings and also the wonderful dough that holds them. It's uniquely Roman and one of those things that people who spend time in Rome yearn for upon returning home. While there was tons of hype with it's opening I'm happy to say it's real.

a peek inside 

I visited Bonci on back to back to back days. So that's how I came to know I liked it. There's so many places I want to try it's rare for me to go back somewhere so fast but bc they have so many different topping options the choices are endless as far as a single visit goes. Bonci cuts their pieces in rectangular shapes like those seen below. To my knowledge that's as small of a piece as you can get. After it's cut (with scissors) and weighed it's put in the oven for 5 minutes before coming out and getting sliced into squares. Each slice equals four squares and will cost you about $4. I would say you need at least two to make a lunch. Up to now I would say I've tried about 7-8 different types.

Potato (L) Arrabitta (R)

Over on Instagram and in actual reviews I read there was lots of praise for the potato pie. I thought it was good but the potatoes were pretty plain. Though as others have pointed out this is all about the dough which is extremely airy and also very crunchy. It's addictive as my back to back visits show.

 Nduja, Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts

My only complaint about this place is the fact that most of the toppings taste the same. I understand it's all about what's below them but I didn't notice much difference in taste from a spicy eggplant option and others with just vegetable toppings. The exception is any piece with nduja on it. The pepperoni spread has become uber popular over the last five years and never have I seen it paired better than with the dough of Bonci. One specific piece I highly recommend is the one seen above. All in all this place is a great addition to the city's dining scene. Add it to array of area lunch options.

Spicy Eggplant / Nduja with Mushrooms

Bonci
161 N Sangamon St
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 243-4016
Website

Monday, October 16, 2017

Roxy Kabab

-Grubbing in Chicago(land)
Middle Eastern in Da Burbs

If you missed last weeks issue of the Chicago Reader you should make an attempt to check it out. The cover story is on immigrants and food and my guy Mike Sula found what looks to be like yet another gem. I've said this before and I'll say it again America without immigrants is a pretty boring place. Nowhere does that statement hold truer than when it comes to food. The food options in are cities metropolises are unmatched when it comes to international flavor. So today I wanted to tag along with the folks at Reader and feature a fantastic immigrant owned place we recently ate at.

Locals Favorite in Franklin Park 

Typically when one thinks of great Middle Eastern food in Chicago the city's Southwest Suburbs come to mind. For instance Bridgeview is a hot spot for Middle Eastern grub. However something I noticed of late in Franklin Park and a few other towns around O'Hare is a boom in the opening of Middle Eastern spots. There's a few I'm looking to check out but Roxy Kabab was the first one due to a handful of glowing reviews. I dont care what Bourdain and Zimmerman say I still think Yelp is the best tool for finding little mom and pop spots. This place might not have 500 reviews but the 7 or so that were on there were enthusiastic about it's quality. There's also mentions of this place being Syrian owned. I had wanted to ask but the guys were hanging out at the bar after serving us.

Plate of Hummus (free with $20 purchase)

Roxy Kabab is connected to a local watering hole. Both the bar and the restaurant are pretty bare bones. For those that have dined at Athenian Room and or Glascott's it's a similar setup. The guy taking our order was nice enough to point out that bc we spent $20 on both a mixed grill plate as well as a shawarma combo we were welcome to free hummus or falafel. The hummus was really smooth and while I cant claim to be an expert in this dish I will say it really hit the spot. It was seasoned well.

Mixed Grill Plate

The mixed grill plate consisted of a beef kebab as well as chicken and some beef shawarma. I didn't realize that we ordered beef shawarma twice but neither of us were complaining as this was the best damn beef shawarma I've ever come across. Anywhere. It's not like I've been to the Middle East but I've ate my way around Dearborn, MI and never came across beef shawarma so perfect. Usually it's slightly chewy and somewhat off in taste but this stuff was as fresh as it gets and also seasoned to perfection. Everything else was pretty good but that beef shawarma is what I'll be back for.

Shawarma Combo Plate

Roxy Kabab
9739 Franklin Ave
Franklin Park, IL 60131
(847) 349-9760

Friday, October 13, 2017

Jr's Red Hots

-In Chicago: Every Dog Has it's Day

When Sam's Hot Dogs on Armitage closed it looked like it was going to be the end of an era. The corner where it sits has had a hot dog stand forever. With the way the neighborhood keeps going it seemed like it's closing would make way for more condos or maybe a mattress store. So when I heard that it was bought by the owner of of the taco shop across the corner I was happy to learn that it would stay a hot dog stand. The owner bought it for the son who fixed it up and changed names.

Newly Opened in Bucktown

Well I really like what they did with it. Sam's was cool in that classic sort of way but the dogs were skinless and the crinkle cut fries were always mushy. As long as the folks at Jr's could improve upon that they would improve upon the stand. And that's what they did. They now serve a 6/1? natural casing Vienna Beef wiener and it comes with fresh cut fries. Immediately making it a legit spot for a Chicago dog in the dragged thru the garden style. Extra points for outdoor seating in the summer.

Chicago Dog with Everything at Jr's Hot Dogs

Jr's has a small menu but not as small as Sam's used to have. Aside from hot dogs and Polish sausage they also offer chicken sandwiches and burgers. I thought the burger was good in part bc it was a char-grilled burger but it wasn't anything to get to excited about. Thus I'll stick with the hot dogs. I've driven by and seen aguas frescas (Mexican Water Juice) for sale on the sidewalk and that's another added bonus to this place. I was however kind of hoping they incorporated a Mexican Danger Dog onto the menu, nonetheless this is yet another hot dog stand worth stopping at for a hot dog.

Char-Burger at Jr's 

Jr's Red Hots
2345 W Armitage Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 666-5444

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