While not necessarily a mecca for those who love chow, St. Louis makes Montana look like a rural food desert. Good cooking actually takes place outside of the home here, and there is skillful barbecue plus the variety of cheap ethnic options sorely missing on the dry, big sky frontiers. (To think: all of that grass fed beef and it takes work to get a decent steak or a burger that does not resemble a hockey puck). But, not to stray into thickets of deprivation-induced kvetching, there really is good food to be found at the confluence of the country's big rivers.
Take for instance the newish smoked meat phenom Sugarfire. The constantly jammed joint squished into a strip mall on Olive near the Inner Belt churns out slabs of 5 star brisket with an obsidian bark and a fork ready tenderness. Navigating the busy parking lot and standing in line for your food are the most challenging aspects of a visit to Sugarfire.
I gave the hushpuppies a shot, what the hell. Studded with pork belly and served with a Toxic Avenger-green jalapeno jelly, the pups were tasty, but slightly underdone at center. In their favor, unlike so many attempts at the fritter which resemble billiard balls dense enough to slip into a sock and cudgel an enemy, the hushpuppies at Sugarfire are light.
I also wrestled the Big Muddy, an offensive looking and heavenly tasting heap of heart-killing meat, sauce and bread.
It's not often that food makes me cry. The last instance of tears at the supper table occurred at Husk in Charleston after a few sips of a smoked apple jack cocktail. At Sugarfire, I felt on the verge of tears when confronted by the Muddy's heady bulk- compelled to devour each succulent morsel on the tray in full knowledge that I would pay the price later on. And sure enough, that was a week ago and I haven't been able to eat much since. Thanksgiving was a one-plate affair yesterday. This sandwich is effectively a mound of mangled brisket ends and slabs of firm smoked sausage drenched in sauce and mayo with pickles and shreds of iceberg. It is delicious, and too much for one person (unless you're a 15 year old boy in which case you could probably down two in a sitting).
I went back the next day anyway and tried out one of the specials: a crispy chicken club with slices of the house bacon. And then the family stopped by for takeout once our bird-day food coma wore off. We brought home racks of baby backs that were pull apart tender with plenty of chewy pork bits on their edges, a pound of brisket and a heap of sausage links. Sugarfire has daily specials and rotating sides (like loaded potato salad and black bean cassoulet), all scribbled on big flags of brown butcher paper and flown above the steamtable where guys covered in fat and sauce slice your meat and pack your platter with goodness. It is good to know what you want before you arrive at the counter as the meat-managers look tired and don't seem the type to suffer fools. This generally is not a problem as you have plenty of time to consider your options while standing in the line that frequently snakes out the door of this establishment.
St. Louis is serious about barbecue and places like Pappy's Smokehouse and Bogarts tend to have a loyal following. My guess is that Sugarfire has been giving these places a run for their money since it arrived on the scene.
Further dispatches on Gateway City vittles to come...