Saturday, May 3, 2014

Stuffed in St. Louis - Restaurant Reviews

Whenever we travel somewhere, I always try to identify at least one well-regarded local restaurant ahead of time to sample the local cuisine.  During our short weekend trip to St. Louis, my wife and I each chose one place - I picked a BBQ joint to experience some of that famous St. Louis barbeque, and my wife picked an Italian place to experience the distinctive cuisine of The Hill, St. Louis' version of Little Italy. 

First, a reminder of my patented rating system:

5 - I Would Walk 500 Miles (And I Would Walk 500 More) to visit this place
4 - Worth a visit when in town
3 - Meh; I won't object if a friend suggests it, but I wouldn't recommend it on my own
2 - Only if nothing else is open
1 - Run, Sriram, Run!

First up...barbeque!

Pappy's Smokehouse

3106 Olive Street
St. Louis, MO 63103
Mon-Sat 11 A.M.-7 P.M.; Sunday 11 A.M.-4 P.M. (or until the meat runs out)
Price - $10-20 per person without alcohol
Directions:  From I-64, exit at Grand Blvd. (37A eastbound, 38A westbound) and go north on Grand.  Turn right at Lindell Blvd.  Lindell will turn into Olive.  Pappy's will be on your right immediately past Compton.  Parking is behind the restaurant.

I used to have a client in St. Louis, and I was first introduced to Pappy's by a colleague from the St. Louis office during one of my visits to the city.  Pappy's looks pretty unassuming from the outside.  And yes, that is their meat smoker.

Despite the unassuming experience, the wait for a table can be very, very long.  We got there a little before 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and we still had to wait almost 40 minutes.  Pappy's has crowd control down to a science, though.  The lines are controlled so that you don't order your food until a table is available to seat your party, which a server will quickly direct you to.  This gives you an idea of the line and the crowds inside.

There are also a couple of interesting artifacts on the wall, including a stuffed hog's head, and a warning to any Chicago Blackhawks fans that think about dropping in.

So what's Pappy's famous for?  Ribs, the dry-rubbed variety.  This was actually my third time at Pappy's, and I've had the ribs on previous visits.  They definitely live up to the hype.  Today, though, my wife and I would try something different - a frito pie, with pulled pork in mine and turkey in hers.  I also took a bottle of locally made Fitz's cream soda.  Why the frito pie instead of ribs?  It was already late, and we planned to eat heavy pasta for dinner, and I thought the frito pie was a relatively small portion (plus, being an East Texas native, I've had a thing for frito pies since my days going to high school football games).  My recollection was, um, a little off...

This is a very large pie.  And very delicious, at least in my opinion.  The pulled pork was tender, nicely smoked, and rendered with just enough fat to make it really tasty.  The thing I like the most about this dish, though, are the sweet BBQ beans.  I love sweet beans, and I think they make a perfect foil for the pork and crunchy fritos.  My wife, however, begged to disagree.  She found the beans too sweet, and thought that they made the dish way too rich.  So beware, mixed reviews.

Can't really say much about the service.  You order at a window, a server finds you a table, and then they bring you the food.  Basic, but it works.  Prices are also quite reasonable.  BEWARE:  as the hours above suggest, Pappy's is only open until the meat sells out.  On a weekday, the pickins' start getting slim about 6:00, so if you want to eat here, I suggest going for lunch.  Speaking of which, Saturday was a beating due to the lines, though on weekdays, the crowds usually start thinning out about 1:30.  Try a late lunch on a weekday, or better yet, get your order to go and have a picnic in Forest Park, just a couple of miles down the road.  No waiting in line if you do take-out.

Rating:  4 stars.  I would consider giving it 5, especially based on my previous visit where the ribs were to die for, but I'll knock it down a notch in deference to my wife's poor review (which I kind of felt bad about, since I directed her to the frito pie...)

After a few more hours of touring, we decided to get our Italian fix at...

Zia's on The Hill

5256 Wilson Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63110
Mon-Sat 11 A.M.-till (usually between 10 and 11 depending on crowds)
Price - $30-40 per person (2 appetizers, 2 dinner salads, 2 pastas, 1 dessert, no alcohol)
Directions:  From I-44 or I-64, exit Kingshighway Blvd. and go south.  Immediately past I-44, turn right on Shaw Avenue.  Turn left at Edwards Street.  Zia's is on the southeast corner of Edwards and Wilson (on the left if heading southbound on Edwards).  Parking is on the street wherever you can find a spot.  I found more spots available by going west on Wilson Avenue, for what it's worth.

The Hill, St. Louis' version of Little Italy, has many, many Italian restaurants, including legendary spots like Dominic's and Giovanni's on The Hill.  We briefly toyed with trying one of those, but considering that we were planning on being out the entire day and wouldn't have time to change (not to mention we'd probably be tired), we decided to go somewhere a little more low-key.  Zia's was our choice based on reviews, and a couple of items on the menu that my wife really wanted.

As with many restaurants in The Hill, Zia's is in a converted row house.
The place was hopping even at almost 9 P.M., though we were seated promptly.
For appetizers, my wife ordered the seafood stuffed mushrooms, and I ordered the toasted ravioli, which is supposed to be a staple of Italian restaurants in St. Louis.

There was nothing wrong with the toasted ravioli, but I realized that they're just not my thing.  The beef filling was fine, and I was a big fan of the marinara sauce served on the side (slightly sweet, with a good hint of basil and a solid fresh tomato flavor), but I don't know, the crusty, kind of hard texture just didn't work for me.  I guess ravioli just isn't meant to be toasted.  I don't care for seafood stuffed mushrooms, but my wife disliked them so much that she wolfed down all 6 of them in 10 minutes flat.

We also ordered dinner salads, which were alright, though not great.  I liked the sweet Italian house dressing and the generous helping of shredded cheese, though all you get is a bowl of lettuce.  That's one of my pet peeves these days - how hard is it to put a couple of pieces of tomato and some shredded carrots in a salad anyway?  The diced red peppers were a nice touch, though.

Then, it was on to the main course.  My wife had the tutto mare (linguine with assorted seafood in garlic cream sauce), and I had the pasta special, which was meat tortellini in a roasted red pepper cream sauce.
I liked this dish.  The tortellini were perfectly cooked with a tasty yet not-too-heavy meat filling.  The sauce clearly had a good dose of heavy cream, and I liked the flavor infused by the roasted red peppers, though the overall flavor was perhaps just a tad too sweet.  The bigger problem was, after stuffing myself on frito pie for lunch, and eating an appetizer and salad, this was just too much food.  Too bad we were just visiting, or a doggie bag would have been in order.

I was really hoping to escape without dessert, but my wife insisted, and we ordered a chocolate cake with sea salt and caramel to share.  I forgot to take a picture, but it was definitely a "right-sized" piece of cake - something two people can easily finish, even after a heavy meal.  That was appreciated.  Especially since I was completely stuffed already.  The cake was delicious, by the way.  The combination of sea salt and caramel gave the cake a salty-sweet combination that was lovely.

Some reviews I read online indicated that service here can be hit-or-miss, but it was excellent on our visit.  Our waiter took our orders promptly, thoroughly explained the night's dinner specials, and walked by frequently to top-up sodas and water.  We were in and out in just about one hour on the dot, not bad at all for a full-service restaurant where the food is cooked fresh.  Our total bill came to $75 - which seems like a lot on the surface, but this was a LOT of food.  If we were at home and boxed things up, we'd each have 1, possibly 2 meals to reheat.

Rating:  4 1/2 stars.  This was some good stuff, and if you're visiting St. Louis, you don't even have to go that far out of your way.

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