From gooey butter cake to Riplets, the Gateway to the West has perfected comfort food.
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Located just south of where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers converge, St. Louis is the very embodiment of the term “Midwest.” The Lou is the home of Anheuser-Busch and the Cardinals baseball team; it is also where the ice cream cone made its debut at the 1904 World’s Fair. People flock to the city to enjoy its dozens of parks and lakes and to watch replica paddlewheeler river cruise ships sail along shorelines dotted with turn-of-the-century architecture.
Established in 1764 by French fur traders, the city is best known for its deep pioneer roots—Lewis and Clark kicked off their legendary expedition here. But perhaps St. Louis should also be known for its unique, oft-overlooked culinary scene, which blends Midwestern comfort food with the flavors of different immigrant groups who’ve made their homes in the city.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, waves of German, Polish, Irish, and Italian people began immigrating to St. Louis and established neighborhoods of their own. There’s also a large population of Bosnians—many arrived in the 1990s to escape civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The unique blending of international cultures has culminated in several dishes that you can only find in the Lou.
Here are eight foods to try the next time you’re in St. Louis:
1. Toasted ravioli
What’s to love: Crisp, meaty bites topped with parmesan
Best place to get it: Farotto’s
If one food could encapsulate the spirit of St. Louis, it might be toasted ravioli—an ode to the city’s vibrant Italian heritage and also its affinity for fried, American comfort food. Toasted ravioli are commonly filled with ground beef, but it’s not unusual to find other fillings like pimento cheese or buffalo chicken. Crispy and crunchy, the ravioli are covered in breadcrumbs and quickly fried (they’re not actually “toasted”). Then, they’re topped with a sprinkle of parmesan and served with a warm bowl of marinara sauce.
Toasted ravioli hails from the Hill, St. Louis’s Italian neighborhood located approximately six miles southwest of downtown. Many restaurants in the city offer them as an appetizer, and the best place to try them—in my opinion—is at Farotto’s, which has been serving toasted ravioli since 1956. Consider pairing them with one of the restaurant’s signature St. Louis–style pizzas for a truly STL dining experience.
2. Pork steak
What’s to love: Juicy, tender pork covered in barbecue sauce
Best place to get it: Beast Butcher & Block
The idea of pork steaks may give some diners pause—after all, steaks are generally not made of pork. This particular thick cut is part of the pork shoulder or Boston butt and didn’t originate in St. Louis. The pork steak was first advertised in the Boston Globe in 1901, but wasn’t a hit in the Lou until the 1950s. Today, it’s a veritable symbol of St. Louis’s summer and backyard barbecues.
Traditionally, pork steaks are grilled and then finished off in the oven with a healthy slathering of barbecue sauce (perhaps with Maull’s, a local favorite)—all that marbled meat and thick fat cap makes for a super tender eating experience. Because pork steaks are an unusual cut, they can be a difficult item for restaurants to source, so restaurants usually offer it as a special if they have it. A few places in town sell them every day, including Beast, which carves and butchers its hogs on location. Owner David Sandusky claims his dish—which involves a meticulous process of an overnight marinade and smoking the meat for four hours—is the definitive pork steak. He may be right.
3. St. Louis gooey butter cake
What’s to love: Buttery, super-sweet goodness
Best place to get it: The Cup
Gooey butter cakes aren’t going to win any prizes for looks, but they might be the sweetest and most comforting cake you’ll ever taste. A flat, dense tray bake, gooey butter cakes’ thick “filling” (it’s more like a baked icing) sits atop a cakey bottom—don’t ignore those toasted edges where the filling has caramelized. Gooey butter cake is often served as a coffee cake: The intense sweetness of the dessert nicely offsets a strong cup of coffee.
The origin of the gooey butter cake is a bit of a mystery (Koppe Bakery, Danzer’s, and St. Louis Pastries all claim to have invented it), but it’s generally believed to have been the result of a happy accident. Legend has it, a 1930s baker (whose name has been lost to time) messed up the measurements while baking a traditional cake, but soon realized the deliciousness of the new creation.
There are two ways to make gooey butter cake: the original recipe that’s generally used by bakeries involves a yeasted dough and the other, a favorite among home cooks, uses boxed cake mix. There are plenty of places around St. Louis to get a slice of the O.G. version, but some restaurants are serving new variations. If you can’t pick, Park Avenue Coffee has 73 different gooey butter cake options, including flavors like butter pecan or Irish cream. For a slice of the real deal, try the Cup, a local bakery that began serving classic gooey butter cake in 2007.
4. St. Louis–style pizza
What’s to love: Thin, crispy ’za smothered in Provel cheese
Best place to get it: Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas
For a pizza to truly be considered St. Louis-style, the crust should be thin—an almost cracker-like crisp—and the pie should be topped with provel, not mozzarella. Provel, a St. Louis staple, is a processed cheese mix of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone—you’d be hard-pressed to find it anywhere else in the country. Thanks to its low moisture content, it melts beautifully across a pizza. However, because of the crisp crust, St. Louis–style pizza can’t be folded as you would eat a New York slice—instead, these pizzas are cut in 3- to 4-inch squares and eaten. Pizza at the family-owned, award-winning Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas on the Hill has been a local mainstay since 1988.
What’s to love: All of your breakfast favorites on one plate
Best place to get it: Chili Mac’s Diner
Sometimes you need a sensible breakfast. And sometimes you need a breakfast consisting of eggs, meat, and potatoes—all swimming in ladles of chili, naturally. All hail the mighty slinger, a staple in St. Louis diners.
Much like the gooey butter cake, the origins of slingers are murky and several restaurants (including Eat-Rite Diner and Chili Mac’s Diner) claim to have created it. Supposedly, a truck driver in the 1970s stopped by a diner and asked the cook to “sling me up some eggs and chili.”
There are many variations of slingers, but at its core, the dish should have meat (usually hamburger patties) and crispy hash browns, topped with a couple of eggs and cheese. All of that gets covered in chili and garnished with raw onions for good measure. Slingers may not fall under the category of fine dining, but they are the epitome of a Midwest home-cooked meal. For a delicious, no-frills version of the original, go to Chili Mac’s Diner in downtown St. Louis—it uses its famous chili as a topper.
6. St. Louis–style ribs
What’s to love: Racks of saucy, grilled meat
Best place to get it: Salt + Smoke
If there’s one thing on this list you’ve heard of before, it’s likely St. Louis–style ribs. Without a doubt, the Lou loves its barbecue. The defining feature of St. Louis–style ribs are their unique rectangular shape, which is created by removing the sternum, cartilage, and rib tips from a set of ordinary spareribs.
St. Louis–style ribs are slathered in sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce and then grilled rather than smoked over low and slow heat. Fun fact: The city consumes more barbecue sauce per capita than anywhere else in the United States, so it’s safe to say there’s more than a few places to get your fix of its namesake ribs. Head to one of Salt + Smoke’s locations for its Cherry Smoked St. Louis Cut Ribs.
7. Frozen custard and “concrete”
What’s to love: A silky step above ice cream
Best place to get it: Ted Drewes
Frozen custard—ice cream’s denser, richer cousin made with egg yolks—was invented on Coney Island in 1919 before being introduced to the Midwestern masses at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
While frozen custard itself isn’t unique to St. Louis, what is unique is the city’s love for local company Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a mainstay in STL for the past 90 years. According to the family, Ted Drewes Sr. started making custard in 1929 while wintering in Florida. In the mid-1900s, he began opening up multiple locations in the St. Louis area—two remain in business today.
Every summer, thousands of St. Louisans line up for their first “concrete” (a custard milkshake so thick it can be served upside-down) of the season. In addition to a build-your-own option, there are over 20 specialty combinations to choose from, like the Hawaiian, which comes with pineapple, banana, and macadamia nuts.
8. Red Hot Riplets
What’s to love: A sweet, spicy, tangy potato chip
Best place to get it: Old Vienna of St. Louis
Nothing goes better with an outdoor barbecue than potato chips. Enter the Red Hot Riplet, a salty, sweet chip that combines smoky barbecue flavor with spicy hot sauce. Old Vienna of St. Louis has been making snacks since 1936, when founder Louis Kaufman decided to open a potato chip business. The Red Hot Riplet was invented sometime in the ’70s and now accounts for 80 percent of Old Vienna’s sales. The iconic chip features unique ridges to help hold onto the unusually high concentration of seasoning. In 2017, the company started bottling the spice blend for devotees to use on, well, everything else. Pick up a bag in town at any local grocery store or gas station to get the true flavor of St. Louis in one bite.