As you pull into the tiny parking lot (sometimes difficult if you have to turn left) and get out of your car, the first thing that hits you is the impressive smell from the smoker behind the restaurant. Once inside the door, you find two small dining rooms - one smoking, the other non-smoking - furnished with what looks like garage-sale kitchen tables and chairs. The walls are decorated with antique cowboy paraphernalia, but the piped-in music is pure blues. You order standing up at the counter, and your dining utensils are paper and/or plastic. They have something called "snoot" on the menu which, to my certain knowledge, really is the forwardmost part of a pig. Except for the combination of cowboy stuff and the blues (much cooler than the obvious choice of country-western music), you haven't seen anything to impress you yet.
But then the food arrives. And you realize that, clearly, the cheapness that touches everything else in the place has served a useful purpose. The folks at Smokin' Al's have spared every expense except the quality of their food. That's where it's all invested.
Smokin' Al's is run by a couple of restauranteurs with a fine-dining background. So as you sit at your cheap table and eat off a cheap plate, you can enjoy a spread of absolutely marvelous food, and all of it completely made-from-scratch (except, I suppose, the Texas Toast - though I'm sure they do toast it on the premises). The meat is smoked out back. The coleslaw, dressing and all, is made in the kitchen. The barbecue sauce (your choice of "wolf" or "cub" flavor, depending on how hot you like it) is a house recipe. Even the applesauce is homemade, and boy is it good!
After knocking off work today, I stopped in at Smokin' Al's and had the special of the day. It was a rib. And yes, I mean one rib. A beef rib, with a big, thick, juicy hunk of meat attached to it. If you ever need to smite someone and the jawbone of an ass doesn't come to hand, stop at Smokin' Al's and get one of their beef ribs. It is an order of magnitude above the more familiar pork ribs.
I still maintain that the best pork ribs money can buy are at the Texas Roadhouse, a chain that I have personally patronized from Yuma to Fort Wayne (and yes, also in St. Louis). T.R. makes them just right, falling-off-the-bone tender and candied with a sweet, tangy sauce. But the Smokin' Al's crowd have perfected the zesty, sloppy, served-on-Texas-toast-type barbecue, served with your choice of two sides (including fries, potato salad, cole slaw, apple sauce, and maybe something else that I forget) in paper tubs on a plastic platter. And the price isn't bad.
The same guys also own a Mexican place on Hampton, a good ways farther south. I've eaten there too, and it's not bad but not to my taste as Mexican food goes. It's the smokehouse flavor at Smokin' Al's I keep going back to!
While I'm nominating "superlatives" in various restaurant categories:
- BEST BARBECUE ANYWHERE: The Wabash Barbecue, within sight of the historic Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, MO. Harry S Truman stayed at the Elms the night before the newspapers declared "Dewey Defeats Truman." I once went to a wedding reception there. But I would skip out of any number of future wedding receptions at the Elms to enjoy another meal of extraordinary barbecue at the Wabash, a converted railway station (which also once served as a dairy) where, on weekends during the summer, you can eat outdoors and listen to live music.
- BEST PIZZA ANYWHERE: Minsky's in Kansas City, off I-29, north of the Missouri River, in the Platte Woods area. It's actually kind of a sports bar, but their pizza is so good that I've measured every pizza I've had in the past 5 years by it. Only a few have come close. I'm pretty well convinced now that the secret to exceptional pizza is an exceptional crust; don't let the "St. Louis style pizza" culture (a.k.a. "toasted crackers and cheese") convince you otherwise. Minsky's has an exceptional crust. Next to them I would recommend Uno's Chicago Grill (a chain that also serves steaks and burgers, but whose crust reminds me of a perfect, soft, buttermilk biscuit) and Gino's East (a graffiti-covered dive in Chicago where their idea of a sausage pizza involves a pizza-sized sausage patty).
- BEST HOMESTYLE MEXICAN FOOD ANYWHERE: The Chili Pepper in Yuma, Arizona, on 16th Street right around Avenue A. The same family (Gutierrez) also run a similar place on 4th Avenue called Mrs. G's, and small "sit-down" restaurant called Casa Gutierrez not far from that, but Chili Pepper was more convenient for lunch break where I worked, so that was where I lined up with a huge crowd of eager customers many a noon hour. You can tell the good Mexican places in Yuma by the size of the crowd lining up at them. The places to avoid, conversely, are the ones with the conspicuously empty parking lot; they serve meat so gristly that you half expect to find a missing pet's vaccination tag in it.
- BEST BREAKFAST BURRITO: Also in Yuma - a little Mexican grocery, adjacent to a crummy little laundromat, called Stan's Market. The kitchen is in the back, but you order at the cash register and browse shelves of canned tripe and dried shrimp in chili powder until they hand you the biggest, most delicious pile of egg, meat, potato, and cheese ever rolled into a tortilla. You can choose between many different varieties, including types midwesterners have no knowledge of, such as "machaca" and "chorizo" and "al pastor." Plan to spend a few weeks there some winter and get to know them all. Then go on a diet for the rest of the year, because you'll double in size.
- BEST ITALIAN DINING EXPERIENCE: I'm going to give this one in general to the Italian eateries on "The Hill" in south St. Louis. I haven't tried the smallest part of them, but some that I have experienced and highly recommend include Trattoria Marcella and Baldo's. They both make a "to-die-for" marsala, which isn't a given after all; I've had a few veal or chicken marsalas, even in this neighborhood, that I wouldn't die for at all. Baldo's is neat because it has a little cafe attached to it where you can imagine little white-haired gentlemen sitting on high-backed settees, drinking espresso around an oval coffee-table, and talking about Inter Milan. Marcella's is interesting because it has a doppelgaenger in Nebraska, near where my mother lives - a restaurant that has the same name and even looks similar, but is otherwise unconnected.
- BEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK: If I ever go back to New York City, I am going to live at the Carnegie Deli as long as my money holds up. I had never had such food in my life as I did during my couple-three days in the Carnegie Hall neighborhood last spring. The Carnegie Deli serves gigantic portions of stunningly delicious food. You always end up needing a take-out box. One time I was having breakfast with a couple of my friends and one of them asked the waitress for a side of bacon. He meant a "side order" of bacon, e.g. 3 or 4 strips of bacon on a plate. She brought him a whole side of bacon (i.e. everything to the left of some porker's spine). Even after sharing it with everybody in sight, my friend still had to ask for a take-out container. Price: $5.95.
- BEST CHINESE FOOD IN ST. LOUIS: If you want the pocketbook-friendly type that you order standing at the cash register and eat off a plastic tray, it is (believe it or not) the Old St. Louis Chop Suey on Chippewa, just east of Kingshighway. If you want the type where you sit in front of a linen tablecloth and have a waiter refilling your glass of water every time it gets down to half full, it's the Hunan Star on the eastbound side of the big oval "island" in the middle of Manchester Road in Des Peres, just west of I-270. Both places serve "real" food that doesn't taste like it came out of the same can that they use at 90% of Chinese restaurants; food crafted with imagination and flair. It may not be what you expect, but I think you'll like it.
- BEST CURRY: I live right across the street from an Indian restaurant, but frankly, when I have a curry jones, I would rather drive several miles through the worst traffic in this part of town to go to a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. I am personally more interested in Thai cuisine than Vietnamese, but the King and I (the one Thai place in St. Louis I have visited) is only "pretty good," not extraordinary. The best curry I have had in St. Louis was at a little place called Mekong on the corner of Grand and Hartford, just a block south of Tower Grove Park. I had something with squid, mussels, and shrimp that was so hot it made my eyeballs sweat, but it was marvelous. And when I can say that about a dish with squid and mussels, the curry must be really amazing. The Thai restaurant I still hunger for is "Tasty Thai" in Platte Woods, not too far from Minsky's.
- BEST SOUP: The 54th Street Bar and Grill in Kansas City has a steak soup that makes my mouth water even to think of it.
- BEST SALAD: I'll give this honor to the St. Louis Bread Company for their Greek salad. Kalmata olives and Feta cheese are just an explosive combination.
- BEST BURGER: I favor Marquart's Landing in historic Washington, MO, on the corner of Front and Elm, right down on the Missouri River. It's a nice little corner bar where you can relax after a gruelling day of looking at antiques, art, gorgeous scenery, and the numerous historical attractions of the town. Their meat (this goes for their steaks as well) has a really interesting flavor; I don't know if it comes from their seasonings, or from their grill, or just from the meat itself and the attitude with which it is cooked. Then, while you're in Washington, enjoy the
- BEST DESSERT: The "mile-high" pies at Cowan's, also in the old downtown area of Washington, MO. These gravity-defying confections stand 6 to 8 inches high at the center and they don't even collapse when a piece is cut out of them. I had a slice of lemon meringue there once and I couldn't believe it. The meringue was soft and fizzy, yet it stayed standing up even as I ate through the pie. The only defect is that the heaps of rich, sweet filling overshadow the crust so much that you never appreciate it as it deserves.
- BEST DELI SANDWICH: I've had to order food from them on many occasions because of work-related meetings in the neighborhood, and there just aren't that many choices of decent food out there, but Augusta Missouri has a delightful cafe, which actually shares a building with a gift shop. It's called Cafe Bella. You can enjoy local wines there, but for me the main attraction is its menu of focaccia sandwiches made from truly "gourmet" recipes. Everything I have tried has had a unique zip to it, from the vegetarian sandwich to the chicken salad, roast beef, or ham. These people take sandwiches seriously, not settling for the usual iceberg lettuce or plain, yellow mustard. They use lovely things such as Greek olives, cream cheese, brown mustard, bean sprouts, romaine lettuce, and of course, their wonderful bread that leaves Panera in the dust. It's only a tiny bit on the pricy side, but if you can afford to spend a weekend browsing antique shops and visiting wineries, or even cruising the countryside on your bike, you can't afford to miss this.