I first went to Mexico as a backpacker over winter break in 2007. My total budget for three weeks and 5,000 kilometers was $500, which ended up covering transportation, lodging, food, drinks, and a healthy dose of souvenirs and presents. Swiss friends drove down from Mississippi, picked me up in Louisiana, and drove on down to the border. We left the car in Laredo, Mexico (a long story onto itself), and hoped on a bus to Mexico City. We lounged on the beach in Puerto Angel and visited Indian villages around San Cristobal de la Casas. We played cards on the zocalos of Oaxaca and Palenque. We spent many nights in buses, since they both got us from one place to the next and saved us the cost of a hotel night. I remember arriving in Acapulco around 4 one morning and exhaustedly drinking vodka and coffee outside a small café where only a thin tarp protected us from the pouring rain until it was late enough to go to a hotel that wouldn’t charge us for that day. Or taking 12 hours to drive 200 kilometers on dirt roads in the mountains, once again so exhausted that we slept on the floor of the bus between seats. Or eating blue corn tacos made by an old woman crouching against a wall in Mexico City, before heading on the subway to go to the acclaimed anthropology museum, and feeling absolutely content.  It was a trip of countless adventures, discoveries, and encounters, the kind of which are only possible when backpacking and having all the time in the world, even if it’s never enough. It was a trip that made me fall in love with Mexico.

breakfast on the street in Mexico City, November 2013

We were broke college students, and fine dining had no room in our plans. We didn’t try to eat exclusively Mexican food, but our budget forced us to and we followed the recommendations of Let’s Go Mexico for the best cheap places in each city we visited.  I knew nothing about Mexican food then (we occasionally made tacos with high school friends in Switzerland, with Old El Paso taco shells and seasonings, feeling worldly, and what I ate in Louisiana was really Tex-Mex), so every bite opened me up to new flavors. I would eat the salsas on our tables by the spoonful to unpack their different taste layers—once even getting a real high from the heat of the chiles, something I’ve (thankfully?) never experienced again. I fell in love with tacos al pastor, that perfect combination of pork, chiles, and pineapple, which today remain one of my favorite foods. I was constantly looking for the next dish I hadn’t tried yet, to a point that became almost ridiculous, especially since then my career aspirations were to become a war reporter for the Associated Press, not work in food. It was, in retrospect, an unconscious behavior, just another materialization of a love of food that didn’t become intentional until I graduated college and looked for my first real job.

I dreamed of going back to Mexico ever since then, but it took me until May 2013 to make it happen, when attending Mesamerica in Mexico City. Then I went to Acapulco in October for the first Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Mexicana. And back to Mexico City in November, to research a profile of Enrique Olvera of Pujol and another piece on the next generation of Mexican chefs. Those came out in the March issue of Food Arts, and appeared online the day after I came back from yet another visit, this time to Merida in the Yucatan, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ll be back in May. I am lucky.

Those trips have been different. I’ve eaten world-class tasting menus in the best restaurants in Mexico City and traditional dishes prepared by village cooks over a wood fire, alongside experts who could explain and contextualize it all. They have offered the same contentedness and joy, however, and have rekindled a love that I hope never becomes dormant again.

This post has sat in my draft folder for a couple of weeks and I have experienced many great meals since, but St. Louis provided enough culinary pleasure that I want to share it. I was fortunate to present at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in early April. With even more good fortune, my presentation, Cooking by the Book: New American Cuisine and the Production of a National Gastronomic Discourse, was scheduled for Thursday afternoon, leaving plenty of stress-free time to explore the city.

The conference took place downtown St. Louis, just a few blocks from the Gateway Arch. The hotel housed Larry Forgione’s An American Place, which, as obvious from the title of my presentation (Forgione’s 1996 cookbook, An American Place, was one of my focus points), was a source of great excitement. I got to interview Nick McCormick, the chef de cuisine at An American Place, a couple of hours after landing, and went back for a celebratory meal with my co-panelist, historian Megan Elias. The real highlight of the week, in this assortment of terrific food in a city where I wasn’t sure what I’d find, was incontestably Chef McCormick’s cooking. Of course, having spent quite a bit of time talking with him about his cooking philosophy, influences, training, and more the day before meant that I did not approach the meal like a blank slate. But Megan did—other than her interest in An American Place and Larry Forgione, driven by her work as an historian of American food—and she concurred. His food was creative, inspired, and perfectly executed. It celebrated the best ingredients that Missouri, but also America, has to offer, following the principles Forgione established in the 1980s but in a way that was  completely contemporary. My photos don’t do his food justice, but the highlights were the shrimp cocktail—a clever take on the satisfying classic dish, with spicy tomato spheres—baby lamb with fiddlehead ferns, trout terrine, and a terrific charcuterie plate. The desserts were also twists on classics, s’mores and peanut butter and jelly, but not done in a cliche way as is the case in too many restaurants that have reinterpretated those dishes in the last decade. Everything we ate felt “fresh” in its interpretation, with a smart, well edited use of experimental techniques. A chef to follow.

We also had to try Niche, since chef-owner Gerard Craft was just nominated for a James Beard Award in the Best Chef: Midwest category. My favorite dish was the fried pig head appetizer—a crispy, flavorful, and rich preparation that I couldn’t stop eating. On Chef McCormick’s and our wonderful waiter at An American Place, Giovanni’s, recommendation, I also went to Monarch for a solo dinner. Josh Galliano, the executive chef, worked at An American Place and at Restaurant Daniel in New York. The celeriac soup, pork belly, grits and morels, and strawberry shortcake were all seemingly simple dishes that had complex and rich flavors.

Not to forget barbecue, at Pappy’s Smokehouse, and Ted Drewes for frozen custard. Neither of those disappointed, and both were worth their long lines. The ribs at Pappy’s Smokehouse are dry-rubbed and then slowly smoked over apple and cherry wood. An assortment of sauces is available on each table, but none are needed. I would never admit that in front of my father in law, but those were the best ribs I’ve ever had. The sweet potato fries are tossed in a mixture of spices and sugar, which makes them dangerously addictive, and the baked beans were rich without being too sweet. The cookie dough frozen custard at Ted Drewes was expectedly sweet but nonetheless delicious.

I had to do a lot of walking in a city not really pedestrian-friendly to offset these meals, and am grateful to the Mississippi boarwalk and Forest Park to allow for that. St. Louis was full of surprises and I hope to go back.

The next out-of-New York post will cover Portland, OR, one of the most amazing food cities in the US right now, if I can be so categorical.