Baseball, Clydesdales, and the Hill
Gastronomic Adventure #8 takes on a much different profile than our past train rides. We are riding 12 corridor trains, all daytime rides, and almost all of the segments costing less than $25. As a result, we will pick up 1200 TQP's at a very economic price. Again, this adventure started very simply, a St Louis Cardinals baseball game with four of JoeG's family and friends. But, it morphed into several side trips and some great summertime fun.
JoeG's daughter lives in a Dallas suburb. Her husband is a big Texas Rangers fan. The Rangers are playing a rare interleague game at Busch Stadium in St Louis. They plan to come to the game with two other Dallas friends and we decide to tag along. The game is on Saturday, so we begin our adventure the Monday before! I leave Grand Rapids on the Pere Marquette, transfer to the Illini at Chicago, and JoeG hops on the train at Centralia (JoeG isn't about to let me get 200 TQP's ahead of him). We leave the train 30 minutes later at Du Quoin, IL and spend the night at JoeG's house.
On Tues morning we board the Saluki for a ride to Mattoon, IL for breakfast. The Downtown Diner has a breakfast skillet, similar to the Bob Evan's skillet, if you are familiar with that, but several dollars cheaper, larger, and more options. The breakfast has a base of hash browns, then sausage, ham or bacon (or if you are in the know, make it an all meat!), eggs cooked to order, and topped with white sausage gravy, and a side of Sourdough toast. We eat midmorning and I can assure you we don't even think about food again - until suppertime!
We return to Du Quoin and travel by car to Kirkwood, Mo. to be in place to catch the train to Kansas City the next morning. But, before that we need some dinner. Gianino's Restaurant is a 1/2 block from the hotel so we hike over there to sample a pizza. We decide on the Don's Special; a pizza topped with sausage, Canadian bacon, onion, and the key ingredient, Provel cheese. Provel is considered a St Louis concoction, a combination of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone cheeses. On a pizza Provel is creamy and a little sweeter than the traditional mozzarella and very tasty!! We ate all but a couple of pieces of the pizza when Curt Leimkheiler, the owner's son, dropped by the table to check on us. He ended up talking with us for about 20 minutes and at one point bumped the pizza stand, knocking it askew, but no pizza fell off of the table. Nevertheless, he ordered us another pizza which we took back to the hotel. We gave the pizza to the hotel manager and insured ourselves some primo rooms for the weekend when we will return with JoeG's family.
On Wednesday morning we stop at Spencer's Grill, a breakfast joint we have had our eye on for months and it didn't disappoint. The place has four tables and a counter. We set up camp at the counter where I can watch the grill cook work her magic! I order a Slinger; 2 eggs over easy, sausage, hash browns, and then the whole thing is smothered with chili, cheese and onions. I watched the grill cook pick up a baseball sized hand full of hash browns and drop them in a puddle of melted butter, then she flattened them slightly with her spatula. Then she picks up a pastry brush and “paints” the butter up the sides and over the top of the potatoes. They come off of the grill crispy and brown on all sides and soft, but well done, in the middle. I still dream about this breakfast!! Oh yeah, JoeG ate, too. He had the Scrapple; a patty of grits and sausage fried for a while on the grill, then dipped in pancake batter and returned to the grill until golden brown. This “pancake” is plated with two eggs and then the whole thing is smothered with sausage gravy. This joint should be a shrine!!
We board the Mo. River Runner at Kirkwood bound for Kansas City. In KC we check in the Q Hotel. We had been here in Feb. when the weather was cold and wintery and we had resolved it was worth a return to check out the Westport area during warmer times. This is a very popular restaurant and bar area. About a block from the hotel we spot a restaurant we can't pass up - The Beer Kitchen. Their beer menu is very impressive but so are the prices, some ranging up to $30 per glass. Come on, we ride trains, not zip around in a private jet! We stick with the popular domestic brews and order some dinner. We start with an appetizer called Deviled Eggs, a duo of shaved Serrano, house cured salmon and wasabi caviar - remember, this is in a joint called the Beer Kitchen!! I order the Triple Cheese Grilled. The filling is Tillamook aged cheddar, chipotle white cheddar, provolone, avocado slices and oven dried tomato. Then the buttered bread is sprinkled with Romano cheese to give the whole thing a very tasty crust. Think I can get Amtrak to add this to the kids menu? If successful, I'd pay extra to eat from the kids menu!! JoeG has the Stockyard Fries; a pile of french fries topped with BBQ burnt ends, then a smoked gouda fondue about half way down, and a pool of chipotle ketchup on the bottom, with diced onion and pickle relish throughout. Lots of great flavors although the basic french fries could use more attention. With that said, I didn't see anything left on Joe's plate!!
Thursday morning the Q Hotel gives us a complimentary ride to Union Station (Gastro #2) and we catch the train back to Kirkwood. And who should be standing on the platform but MistyOLR. We have a nice conversation with Misty but soon have to move on. We pick up a rental car Friday morning large enough to hold 6 people and head to the St Louis airport. We pick up the visitors about noon and grab a quick lunch at PJ's Tavern. Everyone gets their very popular hamburger except me. I go for my favorite spinach and artichoke dip just to see if they can match the wonderful flavor of my first order (Gastro 6) and they did!! JoeG's plan is to show his guests a few of the things that make St Louis a unique city, so off we go.
First stop is the St Louis Basilica, a beautiful structure worth seeing. The ceiling has 41.5 million tesserae tiles, each hand placed by a host of artisans, some of whom spent their entire lives on this project. They started inserting the tiles in 1912 and finished the project in 1988. Wow!
Next, we go to the Gateway Arch. The elevators to the top viewing platform and the museum are in the basement. To get downstairs requires a TSA style inspection but it goes fairly quickly considering the size of the crowds that are in town on this popular summer weekend. But the wait for the elevator is about 2 1/2 hours so we take some nice pictures around the Arch and opt to explore Laclede's Landing. This is a riverside warehouse district that has been refurbished as a restaurant and bar scene. We sample the beverages at Big Daddy's and Sundeckers before going to the hotel to rest for dinner.
Dinner tonight is at Charlie Gitto's on The Hill. The Hill is one of the great old ethnic neighborhoods in St Louis. At least 3/4 of the residents are Italian. The homes are all modest and immaculate, which is an unusual situation in this day when people want to move to newer and larger houses and leave the neighborhood to decline. The restaurants, Italian bakeries, grocery stores, salons, and, of course, Catholic churches are all tucked in among the homes on the hill. A bit of baseball trivia: Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola Jr grew up right across the street from one another on Elizabeth Ave on The Hill. This neighborhood hosts everything from working class taverns with great pizza to high end Italian eateries. Gitto's ranks about midrange for price but wonderful for quality. Now, on to the food!!
St Louis is considered the birthplace of the Toasted Ravioli and Gitto's has the recipe figured out. We get two appetizer plates of Toasted Rav's and a nice bottle or three (maybe four) of Chianti wine for the table. These rav's have a crusty exterior but the filling is pure heaven. Some people like to dip them in marinara sauce but they are pretty darned good if you just pop them in your mouth! Next round is soup or salad. I go for the lobster bisque. There is only one soup on the menu and they certainly have this one figured out to perfection, smooth, creamy, and very rich!! JoeG goes for his favorite lettuce wedge. He has been coming here for years and he loves this seemingly simple salad. Yes, it's just a wedge of lettuce BUT it is topped with crispy little chunks of pancetta, diced tomatoes, onions, and generous chunks of gorgonzola cheese, and then dressed with delicious sweet and sour vinaigrette. Somehow this salad is super cold and it isn't because of a frozen plate, just fresh magic, I guess. For my entree I decide on tonight’s special, Summer Pasta; fresh homemade tomato fettuccini, pan fried pancetta, julienned sun dried tomato and green onion, tossed in a herbed butter sauce, sprinkled with both ricotta cheese and basil and topped with perfectly done shrimp. JoeG orders baked spaghetti, another specialty of the Hill. The spaghetti is placed in a small skillet and baked for a while, and then when inverted on a plate, it holds its shape. It is topped with a beautiful Italian meatball. If you find yourself in St Louis for a day, try one of the restaurants on The Hill, you can't go wrong!!
We wake up Saturday with a few hours to spare before the 6 o'clock ballgame. We decide to tour Grant's Farm. This farm was once owned by Gen U.S. Grant and then sold to the Busch family in the early 1900's. To date, four generations of the Busch family have lived in the quaint little 30 bedroom cottage but the real attraction is still the farm. On one side of the property are the barns that are home to the famous Clydesdale horses. They are impressive and they live a very good life. On the other side of the property is large acreage that houses numerous animals. You go through this are on a tram that terminates at the Budweiser tasting room. The secret is out - now you know why I tolerated the zoo; two free beers from a good selection of Budweiser products. We also had some wonderful German hot potato salad and a few brats. Alright, baseball is next!
We leave the hotel and head for the Shrewsbury Metrolink Station. This train drops us right in front of Busch Stadium. For those of you keeping score, this ride was very important - I haven't been on steel wheels since Thursday!! Busch Stadium is a beautiful ballpark and JoeG had done excellent work in getting our tickets. We are in bleacher seats (this is the most expensive game of the season, the only weekend home game in June and hopefully a replay of the very exciting Cards/Rangers World Series) and there is a huge bar right behind us. And this bar, contrary to most ballpark rules, does not quit sales in the middle of the 7th inning but remains open until an hour after the game!! Saturday night in the bleacher seats - it doesn't get any more fun than that except the Cards lost! JoeG's folks (all sporting Ranger's jerseys!) enjoyed a celebratory beer in our very convenient bar as we let the crowd clear, then we took the Metrolink back to Shrewsbury.
Since we lived through the previous artery clogging trip to Spencer's Grill, we escorted JoeG's folks back for Sunday breakfast. Still good!! Next on our agenda is Forest Park. This is one of the largest city parks in the country. The property was home to the 1904 World’s Fair, one of the great fairs of all time known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It features a Zoo, Art Museum, golf course, several lakes, an amphitheater used for light summer opera, hundreds of picnic areas, and much more. We relaxed at The Boathouse for an adult beverage. For our next stop we head to Pappy's Bar B Que. You know a BBQ joint must have it going on when they have two huge smokers sitting on the street right in front of the restaurant. I tried the brisket and it was the best I've ever tasted and I consider myself a pretty fair amateur smoker. Joe's son-in-law stood in line for 30 minutes for ribs and they sold the last slab to the guy right in front of him. His alternative was an excellent smoked pulled pork butt, but, now we have to go back some other time to sample the ribs!
We dropped the visitors at the airport and drove to JoeG's house to prepare for the consecutive number rides on Monday. We start Monday in Carbondale and ride #390 to Mattoon for breakfast at the Downtown Diner (waffles and stuffed French toast this time around) then #391 back to Carbondale. In the afternoon we catch #392 from Du Quoin to Centralia and have a Mexican dinner. Then #393 back to Du Quoin and we call it a day.
Tuesday ends this adventure. I catch the Saluki from Du Quoin to Chicago. JoeG rides as far as Mattoon (to have breakfast of course!) and returns just to keep up on points. I finish the day on the Pere Marquette back in Grand Rapids. This has been another great trip with some gastronomic highlights. Summertime is a great time to be in the USA. Get out there, ride a train and enjoy some of the unique things in a city near you!!