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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 12:59 am

Finding real cuisine in the Gateway City

St. Louis has plenty of culinary treasures – here are three

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I was telling a friend about some of the restaurants and ethnic and specialty food shops we’ve discovered in St. Louis, and she sniffed: “St. Louis is nothing compared to Chicago.”
“And Chicago is nothing compared to New York,” I shot back. “Get over it!”
My chauvinist friend, a native Chicagoan, was correct in one sense. Chicago is many times larger than St. Louis, and the sheer volume of what it has to offer is proportionately bigger. My husband and I love Chicago and go there as often as our schedules and budget allow, but St. Louis is our big (OK, medium-large) city. We can — and frequently do — leave home in the late afternoon, arrive in time for a leisurely dinner followed by live music at one of several venues, and get home for a full night’s sleep in our own bed. St. Louis’ smaller size can actually be an advantage. It’s possible to visit multiple locations around the area in a few hours, something that’s virtually impossible in the Windy City. And parking, always a major frustration in Chicago, is rarely a problem. St. Louis also has an exceptionally vibrant food scene for its size. It even has a monthly free newspaper, Sauce, devoted to all things culinary. Neither Chicago nor New York, at least to my knowledge, has anything similar. For many in central Illinois, St. Louis means Busch Stadium, Laclede’s Landing, the Galleria, dinner on the Hill, and the Muny. But off that beaten path are many other gems — culinary and otherwise — just waiting to be explored. Here are three St. Louis food finds, the first in an occasional series. All are ethnic shops on side streets off Kingshighway south of Interstate 44, within minutes of one other. G&W Meat and Bavarian Style Sausage (4828 Parker Ave., 314-352-5066) is a bit hard to find, but the effort is well worth it. G&W has a limited selection of fresh meat (including, sometimes, hard-to-find dry-aged steaks). The real stars, however, are the hams, bacon, cold cuts, and sausages made on the premises. The Grant’s Farm bratwurst is the best I’ve ever had. G&W will cut pepper bacon to the exact thickness you specify. If you like liverwurst, don’t miss this shop’s smoked version. A paper-thin slice of G&W Black Forest ham wrapped around a succulent sliver of Beardstown melon elevates the tired old prosciutto-and-melon standby to a whole new dimension. And don’t be surprised if the folks behind the counter offer you a beer while you place your order — even if it’s only 10 a.m.! La Tropicana (5001 Lindenwood Ave., 314-353-7328) is a Latin American grocery store situated on a corner in a quiet residential neighborhood. Since 1975 the market has been selling a full range of Hispanic foods and even some food-prep items such as molcajetes (stone mortars and pestles) and tamale steamers. The deli counter offers freshly made Cuban and Mexican specialties, including excellent house-made chorizo and tamales, for carryout. Ten years ago, the owners expanded to include a café with tables in the deli area and seating on a charming covered patio for warmer weather. Everything we’ve tried has been delicious, including the tamales (also available to take home frozen) and a killer classic Cuban sandwich. The live music on Saturday afternoons is a special treat. Don’t expect fancy-dress mariachis belting out “Guadalajara” — the band consists of three older Hispanic gentlemen and one non-Hispanic middle-aged bass player, a kind of St. Louis version of the Buena Vista Social Club. It’s very informal and lots of fun. Manzo’s Kitchen (5348 Devonshire Ave., 314-481-5200 or 888-462-6967, manzoskitchen.com) is little farther south. Manzo’s has been making sausage for more than 50 years, and in a city that takes pride in its Italian sausage (a.k.a. salsiccia), Manzo’s may just be the best. Pete Manzo, the owner/master sausage maker, prepares traditional salciccia but also likes to experiment, so any trip to Manzo’s may bring new discoveries, such as a garlic-and-rosemary sausage or a Tuscan version with sun-dried tomatoes, Provolone, and pepperoncini. The always available “extra-special” salsiccia is, well, extra-special with the addition of tomatoes, Parmesan, and Marsala wine. Pete’s enthusiasm (and that of his friendly staff) is infectious, and Pete is eager to share his knowledge, not only about sausages but also about the rest of the store items. In addition to Italian specialties, there’s a good selection of Greek foodstuffs, including loukanika, thin coils of fresh sausage with a hint of orange peel. It’s made from a recipe given to Pete by an elderly Greek customer who wanted to ensure that the recipe wasn’t lost when she died. Try these places — I guarantee you’ll be glad you did. If you have any St. Louis culinary discoveries you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.
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