Gioia’s Deli – A Candidate for Best Sandwich in St. Louis

Am I alone in spending the last several Wednesday’s watching Adam Richman’s show about his search to find the Best Sandwich In America?  Now that his search is over, a suggestion from one of my blog readers challenged me to a similar quest.  That’s how I found myself at Gioia’s Deli this weekend.

As always, I did my homework before my visit.  95% like Gioia’s on Urbanspoon and most suggest to try the hot salami.  Once I arrived, I grabbed a number and waited my turn.  The place was busy at 1pm on a Saturday.   I ordered the hot salami with the garlic cheese bread, pepper cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard.  While I was waiting for it to be toasted, 8 out 10 people ordered the same sandwich.  That was a good sign.

Look at the melted cheese!

The sandwich wasn’t particularly photogenic, and I wasn’t patient enough to try for perfection.  I couldn’t wait to dive right in while it was still hot.

Slightly different angle to see the salami

There was a generous amount of the thick slices of the salami.  It was soft, earthy, and slightly salty.  The rest of the toppings were fresh but respected the star of the show.   I had a late breakfast so I struggled to finish the thing.  However, I wasn’t going to waste a bite so I pulled through.

The verdict.   With places like this, why waste your time going to some chain to get a $5 anything.  Yes this will cost a little more and will take a little more time, but it’s worth it for the quality.  Jared wouldn’t have lost any weight eating these tasty sandwiches!  Is it the best sandwich in St. Louis?  That’s a tough call, but I’m sure it will be top 5.

Dive 2 Five Scale – 3.  Family oriented local business.  There was a line the entire time I was there so it will continue to do a good business well into the future.  There is limited seating inside but there is some great street-side seating.  Nothing overly fancy about this place.  The focus is all about giving you a great sandwich that will make sure you will be back.

Gioia's Deli on Urbanspoon

Farmhaus Nose To Tail Dinner – The Lesser Used Cuts of Pork

Today’s post is about a unique dining experience I had this week at Farmhaus.  Farmhaus is one of the premier farm-to-table restaurants in St. Louis.  For one night only, they had their “Nose to Tail” dinner.  It focused on the lesser used parts of the pig.

First course:  Amuse.  I preferred the crostini to the cornbread but both were good.  The lardo was still pretty cold so it was a little hard to spread but had lots of flavor.

Bread and Butter. House cured lardo, cornbread, crostini

2nd course:  Charcuterie. My favorite of the 3 was the coppa romana.  I LOVED the spiciness.  The pig ear was a little chewy but added texture when combined with the tender tongue.  I also enjoyed the house made pickles.

Porchetta di testa (right), coppa (middle), tongue and ear terrine (left).

3rd course:  Green Bay salad or “Because We Had to Have a Salad”.  As you can tell by the picture, shadows were becoming an issue later in the night.  Maybe it was the wine pairing as well. 🙂  I loved the fried cheese curds.  The breading was light and let the cheese be the focus. The braunschweiger was of a higher quality than I remembered eating as a child.  You have to appreciate liver to enjoy it.  I practically licked the plate clean.

House Braunschweiger, fried cheese curds, pork croutons, smoked egg salad dressing

4th course:  Reuben.  This sandwich was fantastic.  The pastrami had some chew to it being made from the pig’s heart.  The house made rye was nicely toasted.  The 1000 island dressing was a great accompaniment.  I liked it being served on the slaw so you could add (or not) to the sandwich to taste.  At this point this was my favorite dish.

Pig heart pastrami, smoked rye bread, house 1000 island dressing

5th course:  Pork Belly.  However, after the first bite of this dish I had a new favorite!  This dish had so much depth.  The yin and yang of the ingredients hit all the key elements.  You had sweet (corn / melon), salty (pork belly), and spicy (green beans).  The contrast of the cold melon served on top of the hot belly. The crispy pork belly skin compared to the smooth fatty rest of the belly.  This dish had it all.  I eat pork belly every chance I get and this was one of the best I have sampled.

Pork Belly. Spicy pickled green beans, creamed corn

6th course:  Crostata.  This was the dish that was the most talked about with my co-workers.  No one could understand how pig liver could work in caramel.  Even at the event, the chef de cuisine shared how they thought the pastry chef was nuts for suggesting it.  From what they said, it took several iterations to develop the version we tasted. I appreciate that effort because it was well worth it.  This was a dish I woke up still thinking about this morning.

Crostata- local peaches, buttermilk ice cream, pig liver caramel

7th course:  Black pudding.  As one guest questioned, “is this what I think it is?”  Yes, it contains blood.  I liked the presentation with the tulie covering up the black pudding and suspending the meringue.  My inner child liked that I got to smash something.  The richness of the meringue and the slightly mineral twinge of the chocolate pudding were a lot for some to handle.

Black pudding. Burnt orange meringue, walnut tuile

This was a very exciting night for an adventurous eater like myself.  I appreciate the chances that Farmhaus and its’ chefs took with the menu and the event.  Most of my co-workers thought I was nuts as they heard about this event.  Although that may be a fair assessment of me in general, there was nothing crazy about the Nose to Tail dinner.  It was well thought out and executed in every detail.  I hope they schedule more events like this in the future.

Dive 2 Five Scale:   A solid 4.  Although Farmhaus has a very minimalist approach to decorating their restaurant, the experience is top-notch.  From the server’s knowledge and excitement of the menu to the preparation and attention to detail throughout the service.  A great place to celebrate a special night with an amazing meal in a lively environment.

Southwest Diner – A Taste of New Mexico

Living in New Mexico for almost 10 years will change your palate.  Now that I am back in Missouri, I have green chiles shipped each fall to roast and store for the year.  Needless to say I was excited to see a restaurant open here serving New Mexican cuisine.

The key thing to know about New Mexican food is the answer to the question: “red or green?”  This is in reference to chile peppers and how you want them prepared.  I am a die-hard green chile fan.  However, for my first trip to the Southwest Diner, I opted for a Christmas (red and green) sausage breakfast burrito served enchilada style (smothered).

Sausage breakfast burrito served Christmas style.

The green was the closest thing I’ve had to a typical New Mexican green chile sauce since I left.  My only wish was that it was hotter.  The red was slightly hotter but still doesn’t pack the flavor or the texture of the green.  My preferences to green is based on a few things:

  • Better vehicle for the onion / garlic.  For those that have read other reviews, I talk a lot about garlic
  • Texture – the red can be a little more gritty.  I prefer the green since it has pieces of the meat of the chili pepper
  • The green is unique to the region and really unlike anything from elsewhere.
The ingredients in the breakfast burrito are pretty simple.  Besides the sauce and tortilla, you have eggs, potatoes, and meat of your choice.  The eggs were scrambled and were fluffy.  The potatoes were well seasoned.  I was surprised there were not more of them.    Most breakfast burritos in New Mexico are 1/3 to 1/2 potatoes (likely due to cost).  This had a lot of sausage patties chopped in it.
I also had a side of their cornmeal pancakes.

Small stack of cornmeal pancakes.

I was surprised how much I liked these.  At first bite you taste pancake, butter, and syrup.  You then notice that the texture is like cornbread and so is the finish / aftertaste.  I liked the sweetness to compliment the spice of the red sauce on the burrito.  I appreciated these pancakes more with each bite.  Before I knew it they were gone.

For those that have not had New Mexican cuisine before, I recommend trying Southwest Diner.  The breakfast burrito is the closest thing I have had to a real New Mexico one. If you are planning a trip to New Mexico, this is a great way to introduce yourself to the cuisine.  You can learn how to answer “red or green” and try chile at a St. Louis-hot level.

Dive 2 Five Scale – 3.  Nice local diner with a very friendly staff.  I suggest going early or off hours.  When I left there was a wait.  It is decorated with several things that reminded me of my days in Albuquerque.

Southwest Diner on Urbanspoon

The Fatted Calf – Best Burger in St. Louis?

I absolutely love burgers.  Always have, always will.  That being said, I’m well overdue for my first St. Louis burger place.  This weekend I finally tried The Fatted Calf in Clayton.

The Fatted Calf has a simple menu that focuses primarily on burgers.  I ordered their namesake “Calf Burger” with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, and their famous soft cheddar.  The person taking my order clearly was not happy to be at work.  Not a great way to start the experience.  The server that delivered the burger was much more personable.

Calf Burger with grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, and cheddar cheese.

The burger was cooked to order.  I prefer medium-rare, and it had just the right amount of pink.  The grilled onions and mushrooms were slightly salty and made a great topping.  Onto their famous cheddar, it reminded me of the cheese in the Handi-snacks I ate as a kid.  Yes, that’s a little harsh, but that is the best way I can think to describe it.  The burger without it was good, but I wouldn’t call it the best in St. Louis.

The Fatted Calf is part of a dying breed.  It’s an old “mom and pop” shop.  It’s legacy is built on generations being raised on their food.   Maybe the soft cheddar is an acquired taste?  We all have a soft spot in our heart (stomach) for some simple comfort food or place we liked growing up.  I’m sure this is that place for many.

Dive 2 Five Scale – The Fatted Calf scores a 3.  It’s kid friendly.  You walk up to a counter and order and then take a number to your table.  The inside is clearly unchanged for many years.

Fatted Calf on Urbanspoon

Guerrilla Street Food – Join the Food Truck Revolution

The food truck movement is alive and well in St. Louis.  If you have not tried any of the area’s food truck choices, you are missing out on some great food options.  Long gone are the times of the standard (and scary) “roach coaches”.

How do you find a food truck?  Most use Twitter, Facebook, etc. to notify everyone of their location and daily specials.  Another great option is to watch for food truck events where multiple food trucks take part.

Guerrilla Street Food uses fresh and local ingredients to serve Filipino-inspired street food.

Candid shot of Guerrilla Street Food Truck getting ready to close up shop.

“Fresh” is the keyword when trying their Fresh Lumpia.

The Lumpia is very similar to a spring roll.  The sauce is sweet and I find it is easiest to pour it on each bite.  Otherwise you tend to lose pieces of the roll.

I also tried the Chicken Adobo:

Lots of flavor in a small to-go package

There is a generous amount of chicken served adobo style over a bed of rice.  I stir the chicken into the rice so it can soak up the sauce.  The chicken is tender.  I love the garlic in the sauce.  Watch out for the peppercorns, they pack a punch.

So what’s the verdict?  I think the following answers that question:

My new shirt

I will be proudly be wearing my new Guerrilla Street Food shirt.  Both items I tried were fantastic.  I had hoped to try the Flying Pig, but it was sold out when I arrived.  A recommendation when wanting to try food trucks at an event, get there early.  Being sold out of items is a normal occurrence.  Don’t let this happen to you!

Dive 2 Five Scale –  How do you rate a place that is mobile?  I score it a 2.  Food trucks are very trendy now, but you never know where you will actually eat your food.  It may be in your car, it may be on the ground…..who knows?  Still everyone should experience a meal from a food truck.

Varsity Donuts – “C” is for Cookie

Three posts in three days!  The past week has been a calorie extravaganza.  Today’s is a “quick bite” post about some unique donuts in Manhattan, KS.

While visiting relatives to meet a new member of the family, I had the opportunity to try Varsity Donuts.    When you walk in, you are hit by the familiar and intoxicating donut smell.  You immediately look to your left and see a wide variety.

So many choices……

A quick peek at their menu shows just how diverse a donut selection they have.  I quickly scan the trays and look for which one was in high demand. I see that the Cookie Monster Donut (called D is for Donut) is running low and it really catches my eye.  Who doesn’t love Cookie Monster?

The verdict:  Fresh glazed donut with standard vanilla frosting.  Great color on the frosting and the sprinkles are key to making it look more like Cookie Monster.  The bright blue color makes me wish for a blueberry flavor. The presentation was what made this a memorable experience.  If I do have a chance to return, I will try a more unique flavor.  I would like to try “The Larry”, “The Peanut Butter Melt”, or the “S’more”.

Dive 2 Five Scale – Varsity Donuts lands on the scale as a 3.  There is something for everyone and its’ just a fun experience.  If you can’t find a donut here, you must not like donuts.

Varsity Donuts on Urbanspoon

Blood and Sand – An Inside Look in a Members Only Restaurant

I finally found time to make it downtown to Blood and Sand.   I have been excited about trying this members only restaurant for a long time.
The experience started by driving down St. Charles street in downtown not sure where I was going.  For those that aren’t familiar with the road, it was basically an alleyway.  The GPS told me I had arrived and I saw “1500” on a building above a revolving door.  Since it was a Thursday, it was time to find some street parking.  They only do valet on Friday and Saturday.
The outside of the building is simple, nothing that would hint of what lies inside.  Once inside I was greeted by a receptionist that had my membership card ready and waiting.  Currently they only have limited memberships for Monday through Thursday for $10 a month.  When full memberships are available, they are $15 a month.  The inside is very modern. It’s night and day from what you experience outside.
Blood and Sand is starting to make waves for not only their food, but some of their creative cocktails.  The staff is very knowledgeable about both and will help with recommendations on both food and drinks.
One thing that came highly recommended from friends and the staff was the tater tots.

Unlike anything tots you have ever tried

After the first bite, you know why.  The outside is perfectly crisp.  The inside is what really surprises you.  It has the consistency of pureed potatoes.  The different textures and the perfect amount of salt made this a perfect way to start.  If this is what they can do with tater tots, I realize I am in for a treat.
After that exciting teaser, on to the first starter.  I had a tough time narrowing it down, but I usually try to pick out something more unique when available.  The clear choice was the  veal sweetbreads.

Veal sweetbreads. Watch out for that mustard.

Sweetbreads are the thymus glands.  I wish I had taken a different angle for the picture, but I couldn’t wait to dig in.  In the back right, you can see the mustard that had a horseradish like finish.   There were caramelized pearl onions on the left.   The best part about it was this was the first time that my wife enjoyed sweetbreads.  That’s a huge thumbs up!
For my entrée, I chose the grilled quail.  The main reason I wanted to try it was for the bacon fat tamale.
The quail was tender.  Quail meat on its’ own is very delicate so the mole sauce was a great complement.  The bacon fat tamale was rich.  The best way to describe it is a soft cornbread.  I loved it.  The only downside to this entrée was the pickled pear.  I’m not a fan of pears.  The pickled pear added a twinge to the dish that I tried combining with the meat, tamale, etc.  I liked the other flavors too much to mix with the pear.
Since I am trying this for my blog readers, I did order dessert.  Ok….maybe I used that as an excuse.  🙂  I am a self-proclaimed chocoholic, so the chocolate mousse was an easy choice.
This was served with shortbread cookies with hazelnut butter.  The chocolate mousse was off the chart.  There was tons of luxurious chocolate flavor in such a small package.  This mousse was on the creamy and thick side which I prefer.  The shortbread cookie sandwich was there to give you a break with a less decadent sidekick.
From beginning to end, the meal and every detail was amazing.  The staff was well-trained, helpful, and knew the menu well.  The menu had a great amount of imagination combined with precise execution.  The experience is well worth the membership fee.  This is the perfect place to take someone to surprise them with an experience that is truly one-of-a-kind.
Dive 2 Five Scale – Although the dress code is “smart casual” and valet is only for the weekend, the members only mystique paired with the experience scores this as a 5.  You don’t need a tux, but any place that has rules gets a bump up by 1 point on my scale.

Blood & Sand (Private Club) on Urbanspoon

Lil’ Mickey’s Memphis Barbeque – What a Sauce!

When people think of BBQ, most will mention the big 3:  Kansas City, Texas, and Memphis.  A few others may mention the Carolinas.  With St. Louis being centrally located to all these BBQ Mecca’s, we are fortunate to live in hot bed of fantastic BBQ.  Most everyone in the area has heard of Pappy’s.  It has gained a lot of national exposure over the last few years.  This review focuses in on Lil’ Mickey’s Memphis Barbeque in St. Peters, MO.

Recognize that familiar building shape?

This is a small family business in St. Peters located in an old Taco Bell building.  However this restaurant has an impressive pedigree in the world of BBQ.  For those of you that are fan’s of the Food Network, this restaurant is owned by relatives of the Neely’s.  If that isn’t enough to tempt you, let me jump right into the food.  I cannot lie, this is not my first trip to this restaurant.  It definitely won’t be my last.  I want to try other things on the menu but I can’t stray away from the pulled pork shoulder sandwich.

The picture doesn’t do this sandwich justice

As you can see, it’s a large sandwich with plenty of juicy pulled pork.  You can get it wet or dry (with or without sauce).  It comes with cole slaw on it unless you request otherwise.  I suggest getting it the way it was intended; wet and with the slaw.  Clearly you are going to get messy eating this sandwich.  You are going to eat BBQ; what did you expect?  Here’s the breakdown on the sandwich:

  • Over-sized bun – nothing fancy here.  It’s just a way to hold everything together.  It serves its’ purpose.
  • Pulled pork – juicy, tender, and plenty of it.  There is a nice hint of hickory smoke.
  • Cole Slaw – It adds a crunch to the texture and a tang to counter the sauce.  If you order it without the slaw, you are missing out.
  • Sauce – They are known for their sauce.  It’s sweet and will leave your hands sticky.  This is a condiment that makes all others jealous.  It’s an all around BBQ sauce that I would use for any type of meat.

I also had the fries.  They were crispy and salty with a creamy center.  Nothing out-of-this world about them, but I’m here for BBQ.  I do recommend dipping them in the BBQ sauce.  I can’t get enough of that stuff!

Lil’ Mickey’s Memphis Barbeque is a highlight for the St. Peters area.  I would put their pulled pork sandwich up against any others in the St. Louis area and beyond.  It’s well worth the drive to get some quality barbeque.

Dive 2 Five Scale –  This is a 2.  It has to be the best use of Taco Bell building ever!  They used to serve their refreshments in cans but have upgraded to fountain drink machine.  The decorations are of blues musicians and there is usually blues music in the background.  When I went for lunch almost every table was packed.  You are eating BBQ so plan on getting messy and enjoying every minute of it.

Lil Mickey's Memphis Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Mario’s Pizza – Who Cares What Style It Is….It’s Just Good Pizza

After a long hiatus and having a professional logo designed, Dive Bars 2 Five Stars is back.  To celebrate, this will be the first blog to introduce the new Dive 2 Five scale!

Last Saturday, I followed a friend’s recommendation and tried Mario’s Pizza in Florissant.  When driving up to the place, it’s a little hard to see tucked back in an older strip mall.  Since we had traveled 20 minutes just to get there, we weren’t going to let the fact that the strip mall was a little rundown scare us away.

Look for the “Pizza” sign in the corner of the strip mall.

Inside you find a very small space with only a few tables.  You can tell that this is mainly a delivery / takeout establishment.  After scoping out the menu, we had narrowed down the list to 2 potential candidates.  Out of those two, the staff recommended the Napoli as being their most popular.  The Napoli is mozzarella cheese, sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, peppers, onions, and mushrooms.

While we were waiting they brought bread sticks to the table.  They were hot, slightly chewy with a crispy exterior.  The garlic was the key flavor.  Nothing really stood out about them, but we did finish them all.  🙂

After a short wait, the Napoli arrived.   From my research on Mario’s before arriving, a few people called it the best NY style pizza in St. Louis.  Mario’s website advertises that it is baked “the way it is done in Italy”.  Here is my take after sampling the first slice.

Note the generous toppings and the strings of melted cheese piled on top.

I wouldn’t call it a typical NY style pizza.  For NY style pizza, I picture the type you fold in half and watch the grease drip down from the slice.  This wasn’t that thin.   To me, this just reminded me a an old-fashioned mom-and-pop shop hand-tossed pizza.  When the server was plating our slices, the cheese was stretching from the pan to the plate.  The crust was crispy on the bottom, but not burnt.  It stood up well to the amount of toppings on the pizza.  The sauce had a sweet flavor.  The peppers were sweet as well and the onions were not overpowering. They wouldn’t have you running for something for heartburn after eating it.  In general the proportions of the toppings were perfect.

We sat at the table by the counter. You can see the mat at the front door.

If you are looking for fresh ingredients combined to make a good quality pizza, Mario’s is a great choice.  If you are looking for a typical St. Louis style, pizza, this should not be your choice.  Now on to the Dive 2 Five scale.

Dive 2 Five scale – this comes in as a 2.  Remember, this isn’t about the quality of the food, this is about the experience, location, ambiance, etc. It is a 2 for the following reasons.  This is a pretty old strip mall.  I’m pretty sure if I went into the bar next door, “Pirates Cove”, they are likely a true dive bar and would score a 1.  Mario’s is mainly a takeout / delivery restaurant.  However, you can tell they did put some effort into painting and decorating the space they have.  All that being said, going here was all about getting a good quality pizza.  In that respect, they hit it out of the park.

Mario's Pizza on Urbanspoon