St. Louis has a growing culinary scene with diverse restaurants and James Beard Award winning chefs. But when you think of the foods St. Louis is most known for, it's traditional tastes that often come to mind. Favorites like toasted ravioli and frozen custard have been part of local food culture for decades. So during your next stop in St. Louis, try these ten essential foods from the Gateway City.
At the top of the list of essential St. Louis foods is toasted ravioli. You'll find this tasty appetizer on most menus around town, though quality varies greatly. Toasted ravioli is breaded, deep-fried pasta filled with meat or cheese. It's served sprinkled with parmesan cheese and with marinara sauce for dipping.
Toasted ravioli was created in St. Louis in the 1940s. Several restaurants on The Hill claim to have invented it, but no one knows for sure. Wherever it happened, the story goes that a cook accidentally dropped traditional ravioli into hot oil instead of water. The resulting fried ravioli was so well received, they decided to put it on the menu.
Frozen custard may be St. Louis' favorite sweet treat. This dessert is similar to ice cream with a thicker, richer consistency. The city's most popular place to get frozen custard is Ted Drewes. There are two locations, including one on the famous Route 66.
All of the custard at Ted Drewes is vanilla with sauces, candy, fruit and nuts added in. You can get shakes or sundaes, but for the ultimate treat try a concrete. The concrete is so rich and thick that you can turn the cup upside down and the custard won't fall out. Popular choices include the Fox Treat made with hot fudge, raspberries and macadamia nuts, and the Dutchman with chocolate, butterscotch and pecans.
St. Louis Style Pizza
To be honest, St. Louis style pizza isn't for everyone. Most people love it or hate it. It's pizza with a cracker thin crust that's cut into squares. But the main thing that makes it stand out, is that it's made with provel cheese, not mozzarella.
For many, provel is an acquired taste. It's a processed cheese product that combines cheddar, swiss and provolone, with a touch of liquid smoke. It has a much stronger flavor than mozzarella when added to pizzas and other foods. Provel also has sticky texture when melted. You can find St. Louis style pizza all over the city, but the best place to go is Imo's. With dozens of locations across the region, there's always an Imo's nearby.
Gooey Butter Cake
Another St. Louis original is gooey butter cake, and like toasted ravioli, it likely came about by accident. Gooey butter cake is essentially a coffee cake with a sweet, custard-like top layer. It was reportedly created in the 1930s when a local baker mistakenly mixed up the ingredients for a traditional coffee cake. Gooey butter cake is served sprinkled with powdered sugar.
You can find gooey butter cake at bakeries, pastry shops and grocery stores all around St. Louis. It's traditionally made with vanilla, but chocolate, pumpkin, and other flavored versions are also popular. Gooey Louie is a local shop that specializes in making many varieties of gooey butter cake. You'll also find a delicious version at Russell's, or try making your own with this recipe from the Junior League of St. Louis.
BBQ Pork Steaks
Summer grilling in St. Louis means it's time for BBQ pork steaks. This inexpensive cut of meat is cooked on a hot grill and heavily sauced. Its usually a do-it-yourself food, but you will find pork steaks on the menu at several St. Louis area restaurants.
St. Louis Style Ribs
St. Louis style ribs are another BBQ staple in the Gateway City. These pork spare ribs are generally more fatty than baby back ribs and are often slow-cooked for several hours. This provides a full-flavored and tender meat. The ribs are seasoned with a dry rub while cooking and can be topped with BBQ sauce as well.
For great ribs in St. Louis, there's no better place than Pappy's Smokehouse. Pappy's has been voted one of the best BBQ joints in the country and ribs are the house specialty. Pappy's ribs are dry rubbed and slow smoked for a rich flavor. They are served up with traditional sides like baked beans, potato salad, and corn on the cob. Other St. Louis restaurants with great ribs are Salt + Smoke and Bogart's.
St. Paul Sandwich
The St. Paul Sandwich can be found on the menu at nearly every Chinese restaurant in the St. Louis area. It's a St. Louis original and may have been created by a Chinese restaurant owner in Lafayette Square in the 1940s. The sandwich consists of a fried egg foo young patty on two slices of white bread with mayonnaise, lettuce, pickles and tomato. Most restaurants offer several versions of the egg foo young patty including vegetable, chicken, beef, pork and shrimp.
The St. Paul is a tasty sandwich, but perhaps the real reason it's so popular is that it's often the cheapest entree on the menu. At most restaurants, you can get a St. Paul for $2 or $3. It's enough food that it feels like a meal, but for only a couple of bucks. For a true St. Paul experience, try Fortune Express in South St. Louis or Hon's Wok in the Central West End.
Merb's Bionic Apples are the gold standard for caramel apples in St. Louis. The popular sweet shop has been selling its candy-coated apples for more than 40 years. The giant Granny Smith apples are coated in Merb's homemade caramel, then rolled in salted pecan pieces for a delicious combination of tart, salty, and sweet.
Bionic Apples are a seasonal treat, so you'll only find them in the fall. Merb's makes and sells them from early September through Thanksgiving. You can pick up Bionic Apples at any of the three local Merb's locations, including the original store on South Grand in south St. Louis. You can also find the apples at select grocery stores throughout the St. Louis area.
The Slinger is best enjoyed between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m., after a night of drinking. The slinger is pure diner food and the best ones are served at small, hole in the wall locations across the city. Slinger ingredients vary, but the basic version is hash browns, eggs and a hamburger patty smothered in chili, then topped with cheese and chopped onions.
Some of St. Louis' more upscale breakfast restaurants like Rooster and The Mud House serve "fancied-up" versions of the slinger with andouille sausage and vegetarian black bean chili. But for a true slinger experience, the best place to go is a real greasy spoon like the Eat-Rite Diner near Busch Stadium or the Courtesy Diner in south St. Louis.
St. Louis has a large Catholic population that adheres to the Church's teaching of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. To accommodate those dietary restrictions, many local churches began hosting fish fries to feed the masses. Today, going to a fish fry is a tradition for many people whether they are Catholic or not. Groups get together and pick a new fish fry location to try each week.
Most local fish fries offer a similar menu of fried or baked fish, french fries, coleslaw, potato salad, green beans and macaroni and cheese. Most meals cost $7 to $9 and include dessert and coffee or iced tea.
Some local churches like St. Cecilia's have developed a reputation for having one of the best fish fries in town. Lines are long every Friday during Lent, but diners say it is worth the wait. To get a fish fry fix when it's not Lent, there's St. Ferdinand in Florissant. This church hosts its fish fries year round for hungry visitors.