Review: Kounter Kulture
You usually don’t hear calls of “Yes, chef” or “Coming up, chef” when waiting for dinner to-go, but inside Kounter Kulture, the new carryout eatery in South City’s Lindenwood Park neighborhood, it sounds like you’ve stepped into a fine-dining kitchen. I made this mental note while standing around the storefront operation, snacking on an amuse-bouche of creamy grits cooked in coconut milk topped with a vinaigrette, a few peanuts and pleasantly hot diced Fresno chiles. Which led to my second observation: You usually don’t expect an amuse-bouche while cooling your heels for a meal to be eaten at home.
Kounter Kulture co-owners Christine Meyer and chef Mike Miller are known for their wildly popular Kitchen Kulture popup events and Saturday stands at Tower Grove Farmers Market (that cheesy, crazy delicious griddled breakfast sandwich!). Like other nomadic food purveyors who have established a brick-and-mortar presence (Seoul Taco and Guerrilla Street Food come to mind), Meyer and Miller’s permanent base allows them the literal and creative space to offer a more varied menu on a more regular basis.
And what a menu it is. Drawing inspiration principally from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, Meyer and Miller procure mostly local ingredients for a small but mighty rotating selection of what is essentially Asian snack foods to take home: thick spring rolls stuffed with greens, crunchy cucumber and sweet mango accompanied by a zingy carrot-ginger dipping sauce; little fried gyoza fattened with crispy shrimp and pork, glistening with a sweet tsume sauce; steamed buns loaded with roasted pork, tofu or fried catfish.
I had heard about those buns – how the pork bun was like a pulled pork sandwich, made far more interesting with smoked onions, a crunchy daikon radish-carrot-jalapeno slaw and a fermented chile-mustard sauce that could replace all memory and desire of your favorite barbecue sandwich. How the tofu bun could remind one of a Filet-O-Fish sandwich, but that would be an insulting comparison given just how delicious the slab of fresh local tofu was, deep-fried to a golden crisp with sesame cabbage and pickles adding just the right amount of crunchy texture, and Kewpie mayonnaise and Bull-dog sauce (both house-made versions of Japanese brands) providing a brilliant flavor combination.
When I reveal my favorite dishes of the year, count on the togarashi-spiced, Southern-meets-Asian catfish po’boy steamed bun to appear near the top of the list. Fried to an even darker hue and a crunchier crunch than the tofu, the fish lost none of its natural succulence. I watched a cook pull it from the fryer and sprinkle it with togarashi (a chile-sesame spice mixture) before dousing it with a creamy shishito pepper and cherry tomato remoulade. Through it all there was the taste of fresh catfish, plucking a banjo behind the fried coating and spice.
Also count on seeing the okonomiyaki pancake somewhere on that list. More the size and heft a Chicago deep-dish pizza, the okonomiyaki (literally, “grilled to one’s liking”) looked like what would happen if a frittata, pancake and pizza had a threesome. The basic version consists of shredded cabbage loosely held together with a batter of eggs and flour to which you can add bacon, squid or, as I did, wild mushrooms. Topped with a lattice-work of more Kewpie mayonnaise and tangy Bull-dog sauce, it was slid into a pizza box, sliced into fourths and sent home with little cups of bonito flakes and furikake, a seasoning blend of sesame seeds, seaweed, sugar and salt, adding even more pungent savory punches.
Last month, I said gyudon is the kind of simple comfort food you want after a crazy day at work. Kounter Kulture’s version was no less comforting: a generous portion of Missouri beef braised in soy-dashi broth served in a bowl of seasoned rice and topped with shredded cabbage, slow-cooked egg and togarashi for layers of sweet, salty and smoky flavors. The Korean BBQ Chicken Rice Bowl was all about the last of heirloom tomato season, chunks of avocado and the cilantro-lime crema dressing. Even topped with fried chow mein noodles, it was more Mexican than Asian.
The green curry noodles with summer vegetables and fried tofu was like opening a box of classic color crayons: verdant green of basil and parsley, red and orange cherry tomatoes, the white of bean sprouts. When tossed with the thick, creamy sauce – house-made curry paste mixed with coconut milk and fish sauce – I thought of fettuccine.
When Pint Size Bakery moved north on Watson Road to bigger digs, Meyer and Miller took over the quaint space that has always looked like a drive-in, even back when it was a Cecil Whittaker’s Pizza joint. Inside, the kitchen is in full, immediate view of the walk-up counter. There are a few bistro tables and chairs outside, but for the next few months you’ll want to hover inside, where it sounds like a real restaurant.
AT A GLANCE
3825 Watson Road, St. Louis, 314.781.4344, kounterkulturestl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Togarashi catfish steamed bun, okonomiyaki pancake
Tiny, carryout-only spot with friendly staff and music pleasant to wait around to
$6 to $17
Tue. to Sat. – 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.
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