When I was growing up in Lafayette Square, on the near south side of St. Louis, we lived next door to a couple of Lebanese sisters. The sisters were old, maybe in their seventies, and the oldest one didn’t really speak very much English. They both had their hair pinned up tight, wore flowery dresses, white stockings, and those old clunky granny shoes with the square heel. The elder sister wasn’t all that fond of children either, waving her broom in the air and calling us what I later found out was the Lebanese equivalent of “little snakes.”
But every Saturday morning she would slowly hobble down into the basement that we shared and fire up the old wood stove and bake bread. The wonderful smell would wake you up. Sometimes the youngest of the sisters would bring several of the flat pieces of bread over for us kids. It was flaky and chewy and covered with cloth, still warm from the oven. We would spread butter on top of it and munch while watching the Saturday morning cartoons. At other times throughout the day there would be strange, exotic, and delicious smells coming from their apartment.
The sisters are long gone now, but those scent memories still linger, and once in awhile if I want to indulge in some good Lebanese and Middle Eastern food, I know just where to go:
Saleem’s Lebanese Cuisine 6501 Delmar (314) 721-7947. This crowded and popular spot on the Delmar Loop features belly dancing on Friday nights and plenty of the “stinking rose” (garlic) every other night of the week. A couple of the garlic Bloody Mary’s will definitely get you started and you won’t have to worry about any bites to the neck on your way home. Try the baba ganoush or the tabbouli, which is made with parsley., olive oil, and cracked wheat. The chicken kabobs served with onions, tomatoes, and peppers were mildly spiced and delicious. Saleem’s also has some of the best hummus ( chick peas, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and paprika) in town. At Saleem’s their motto is right on the button: “Garlic Is King.”
CafÃ?Â© Natasha 3200 South Grand (314) 771-3411. This reasonably priced south side Persian eatery has outside seating as well as a Web site for easy take out ordering. Falafel is available as both an appetizer ($2.50) and an entrÃ?Â©e ($5.99). It was crunchy on the outside and nicely spiced on the inside with just the right amount of cumin. Natasha’s has several chicken kabobs, including tandori, barbecue, and traditional. Try the chicken shawarma kabob and the rice pilaf with raisins and lentils. For dessert don’t miss the Persian ice cream made with pistachios and saffron.
Saint Raymond”s Maronite Catholic Church 9311 Lebanon Ave. (314) 621-0056 Ask anybody who works downtown or lives on the south side where to eat lunch, (Wednesdays only 11-2) and anyone who’s lived here more than five minutes will tell you Saint Raymond’s. You’ll find politicians, lawyers, local celebrities, and factory workers all waiting in line. You might even bump into the mayor on occasion. St. Raymond’s is an Eastern Rite Catholic Church founded in 1898, but for the past 38 years a group of volunteers has been serving the most delicious lunch in town once a week. Parishioners prepare Lebanese specialties like meat-and-spinach pies, grape-leaf rolls, kibbi aras, and pitas. There are also a few American standards thrown in for good measure. The very reasonable prices, (nothing on the menu is over $3.75) makes for a long line at the cafeteria counter, but it moves pretty quickly and it’s well worth the wait.