Singularly St. Louis: Local peculiarities will perk up your palate

Every city has local food favorites that keep natives and tourists alike coming back for more. Many of these menu items are far from five-star cuisine, and a lot of them aren’t as well-known as, say, Chicago’s signature-style hot dog.

Take, for example, the salt potatoes of Syracuse, N.Y., and the San Francisco area’s Hangtown Fry, an oyster omelet. In St. Louis, look beyond the given favorites – toasted ravioli and St. Louis-style pizza – to a few more food oddities worth seeking out.

The St. Paul sandwich

This St. Louis staple consists of an egg foo yong patty, mayonnaise, lettuce, pickles and tomato on white bread. “It was already here in a few small restaurants when I moved to St. Louis in 1979 from Vietnam,” said Linda Ong, manager of the Chinese Express on Hampton Avenue. “We don’t know who started it.” The unclear origin of this sandwich hasn’t stopped it from spreading throughout St. Louis.

Stop by Terrene for a healthful twist on the original. You’ll have mayonnaise dripping down your hands and chin before you can say “egg foo yong.”

For starters, Terrene uses wheat bread instead of white and makes its own spicy chile mayonnaise. “It’s a bonus to get them in the summer because we top it off with nice vine-ripened tomatoes,” said Dave Owens, executive chef and co-owner of the Central West End restaurant. Owens even modified the egg foo yong. “We mix five-spice powder, extra ginger and garlic, edamame beans instead of green peas, onions and smoked tofu.”

Owens has eaten this sandwich since he was a teenager, so it was important for him to include it on Terrene’s menu. “I don’t sell a lot of them, but that’s OK because I like them and everybody that gets them really enjoys them,” he said. “I never understand why people are weirded out by it. It’s always on the menu. I’m forcing it on people.”

The slinger

Although one tale about the origins of the slinger claims that Irish immigrants settling in St. Louis during the potato famine created the dish as a way to bury the spud under a heaping pile of ingredients, Courtesy Diner owner Larry Rugg has never heard of that story. “It’s just always been around,” he said.

Courtesy Diner, with two locations in South City, offers a number of variations on the traditional recipe. “The regular slinger is two eggs, hash browns, a hamburger patty and chili,” Rugg said. “Most people also ask for Cheddar cheese and chopped onion. The real die-hards get the Super Slinger, which has either a beef burrito or a tamale on top. We probably sell most of them during the third shift. It’s really popular with the bar crowd.”

Tamales and burritos have always been a slinger staple at the Courtesy Diner. “A lot of places don’t carry tamales and burritos, so I’m not sure you could get it the same way anywhere else,” Rugg said.

Gooey butter cake

In the 1930s, the story goes, a German baker in South St. Louis added the right ingredients in the wrong proportions when attempting to make a regular butter cake recipe, turning the batter into a pudding-like filling. We all know the outcome of this happy accident, and it’s been gaining popularity recently, showing up on restaurant menus and in new flavors.

Lubeley’s Bakery and Deli, located in Affton, is one of many area establishments that continues to serve the sweet treat. They take a traditional approach to the confection.

“It’s that rich, creamy shot of sugar and butter that you don’t get in any other pastry,” said co-owner Helen Lubeley Murray. “My favorite is the cinnamon gooey butter that we sell in the fall. In the summer, Bob [Lubeley] will put fresh big strawberries on top and they sell very well.”

Fresh fruit is also popular at Lafayette Square’s Park Avenue Coffee, which boasts 45 flavors of gooey butter cake and serves a rotation of about 10 flavors every day.

“Blueberry is the most popular, followed by peach and mint-chocolate chip,” said owner Dale Schotte. “The fruit is more popular because people think of it as being lighter. I mean, it’s gooey butter cake, for God’s sake.”

Schotte considers gooey butter cake a must because of the hometown flavor that it provides. “This is a community space, so what is more regional than gooey butter cake?” he explained. But 45 flavors? “Pick a flavor and we can do it … for the most part. Every time we come up with a different flavor, I always say, ‘This one’s better than the last one that I thought was the best!’”

Upcoming seasonal flavors include eggnog, apple spice, peppermint and gingerbread.

The brain sandwich

Schottzie’s Bar and Grill in South County has been serving brain sandwiches since 1947, deveining and hand-breading the pork or calf brains in-house. The brain patty is then deep-fried and served with red onions, hot mustard and pickles.

“I know that people used to think that it made you smarter to eat that organ of an animal,” said Sarah Seeger, floor manager of the Schottzie’s Famous Pizza & Grill in Maplewood, which also serves the sandwiches. That’s not enough to make Seeger want a taste. “I always say I’m going to try it, but it just hasn’t happened yet. I’ve heard that it’s more of a muscle-like texture.”

Seeger said that there are a few regulars that are not only brave enough to try the brain sandwich, but also order it every visit. “The South County location has a bus of retirees that come in every couple of months to order the brain sandwich,” Seeger said. “It’s kind of funny.”

Others order the brain sandwich for the novelty. “You know, a bunch of guys come in and it’s like, ‘I dare ya.’”