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, and it's served sprinkled with parmesan cheese and 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 which did. 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 might 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, and there are two locations for this creamery including one on the famous Route 66.
All of the custard at Ted Drewes is vanilla-flavored, but guests add in sauces, candy, fruit, and nuts for additional flavor. Shakes or sundaes are also available, but the ultimate treat is called The Concrete, which is so rich and thick that the custard won't fall out if you turn it upside down. Other 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 isn't for everyone—most people love it or hate it. Basically, this style of pizza is made 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 and has a much stronger flavor than mozzarella when added to pizzas and other foods. Provel also has a sticky texture when melted. While St. Louis style pizza is found all over the city, the best place to go is Imo's, which has dozens of locations across the region.
Another St. Louis original is the 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 that is served sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was reportedly created in the 1930s when a local baker mistakenly mixed up the ingredients for a traditional coffee cake.
Find gooey butter cake at bakeries, pastry shops, and grocery stores all around St. Louis. It's traditionally made with vanilla, but the chocolate, pumpkin, and other flavored versions are also popular in the city. Gooey Louie is a local shop that specializes in making many varieties of gooey butter cake, and you'll also find a delicious version at Russell's.
Summer grilling in St. Louis means it's time for BBQ pork steaks, an inexpensive cut of meat that is cooked on a hot grill and heavily sauced. It's usually a do-it-yourself food, but you will find pork steaks on the menu at several St. Louis-area restaurants.
For a top of the line pork steak, try Gamlin Whiskey House. It serves up a 24-ounce pork steak with St. Louis BBQ sauce and bacon mashed potatoes. Another good option is Highway 61 Roadhouse, which has a hearty pork steak with sides like green beans, coleslaw, or mac and cheese.
St. Louis style ribs are another barbecue staple in the Gateway City. These pork spare ribs are generally fattier than baby back ribs and are often slow-cooked for several hours, which provides a full-flavored and tender meat. The ribs are seasoned with a dry rub while cooking and can be topped with barbecue sauce as well.
For great ribs in St. Louis, there's no better place than Pappy's Smokehouse, which has been voted as one of the best barbecue joints in the country, especially for their house specialty ribs. Pappy's ribs are dry-rubbed and slow-smoked for a rich flavor and served up with traditional sides like baked beans, potato salad, and corn on the cob.
The St. Paul Sandwich is 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, and it's enough food that it feels like a full meal. For a true St. Paul experience, try Fortune Express in South St. Louis or Hon's Wok in the Central West End.
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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. Pick up Bionic Apples at any of the three local Merb's Candies locations, including the original store on South Grand in south St. Louis, or 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 the smaller, 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 dive 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, and groups get together to 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, and most meals 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, a church that hosts its own fish fries year-round.