Feast on St. Louis: Cherokee Street
Written by Bethany Christo
Photography by Jacklyn Meyer
Choose your flavor on Cherokee Street: Along one vibrant, walkable thoroughfare, you can stop at a handful of authentic taquerias, dine at a brewery dynasty’s family mansion, pull up a chair for from-scratch brunch and coffee, and try modern Asian-inspired fare – just to name a few highlights.
Anchored on one side by a large Cherokee Native American statue, six blocks of the neighborhood east of Jefferson are often referred to as Antique Row for the collection of antique and specialty shops, underground art galleries, performance venues, and eclectic restaurants and cafés. Alongside these are historically Latino restaurants, grocers, butchers and bakeries – some of the best in St. Louis. La Vallesana is nicknamed “esquina de sabor” – the savory or flavor corner – for good reason: What started in 2003 as a humble ice-cream and taco stand has now expanded to a full-fledged corner cantina with two lively patios.
“When we first started, it was pretty dead around here,” says general manager Abigail Vargas. “People would come for groceries and that’s it. There’s been a lot of new business since then, places expanding like we did, and then we saw the Latin community grow – we all grew together.”
La Vallesana’s expansive authentic menu includes steaming fajitas, spicy shrimp platters and thick tortas, or Mexican sandwiches made with traditional telera bread. Insiders will point you to its al pastor – tender pork with grilled pineapple – available in tacos, a burrito, quesadilla, torta and gyro.
“Everybody loves the tacos, especially the al pastor, but we also serve cow cheek, cow tongue, regular chicken and regular steak,”Vargas says. “When we first opened, we were an ice-cream shop, so that’s popular – any flavor you can think of, we probably make it.”
To that end, the front of the shop is a temptation of frozen treats: from-scratch ice-cream with all-natural ingredients and real fruit, as well as an assortment of colorful paletas. Other housemade desserts, plus drinks like Margaritas, horchata and refreshing flavored sodas, are available on the restaurant’s regular menu.
Making your way west down Cherokee, you’ll come upon Vista. Although often referred to as a ramen shop, Vista chef-owner Chris Bork serves much more than the Japanese noodle dish and, since opening in mid-2016, is widely considered to serve some of the most innovative food in St. Louis. Asian-inspired seasonal dishes are plated beautifully and highlight Bork’s skill and attention to detail. There are four daily offerings of ramen, including a pozole version – influenced by the Latino cuisine of Cherokee – that features a chicken- and pork-based broth cooked down with ancho chiles and garnished with hominy, chicken, scallion, nori seaweed and palapa, a spicy Filipino condiment with coconut. Other best-sellers include the pork ribs, which are marinated with coconut, herbs and citrus; then fried; tossed with crab-caramel sauce; and garnished with peanuts and fresh herbs; or the murasaki ravioli made with white-flesh Japanese sweet potatoes, onion purée, wakame seaweed oil and a bonito-cured egg yolk.
“The food that we do here is Vista food – hopefully it’s unique to this space and this restaurant,” Bork says. “Cherokee is eclectic – there’s a little bit of something for everyone, a great mix of things. I didn’t want to open a Japanese restaurant, or just a ramen shop– I wanted it to be a creative outlet.”
Along with Bork, Jeremy and Casey Miller are partners at Vista, as well as owners of The Mud House, a breakfast-and-lunch spot four blocks west down Cherokee. The pair have lived in the community since buying the building in 2009.
“We fell in love with the neighborhood and this space,” Casey says of The Mud House. “It felt like that quintessential cozy coffee shop. And it’s totally welcoming to everybody – every age, every color, everyone. Grandmothers feel at home with the young kids or touring punk bands that come through.”
Jeremy echoes Casey’s praise of the neighborhood. “Cherokee is really the poster child of St. Louis,” he adds. “You could hang out and get a perfect sample size of who lives here and who comes here. What I’m most proud of is that people who are here want to be here, as opposed to being here because there’s guaranteed success.”
The Mud House is a charming, friendly coffeehouse serving a full breakfast and lunch menu every day, as well as an expansive coffee and tea menu – think peanut butter-mocha latte, chai-der (chai tea and cider) and the Dank + Stormy with Kyoto-style cold brew, ginger beer and lime. Once you snag a cozy table, nestled among goods from the surrounding antique shops decorating the space, make sure to order The Goat sandwich with goat cheese and beet chutney, spicy tofu scramble and Grits + Green bowl with pork confit and poached eggs.
From there, keep west to The Lemp Mansion Restaurant & Inn. Along the way, you’ll see the long-defunct massive, imposingLemp Brewery brewhouse and production facilities on your right. Lemp Brewery was once a thriving operation, whose owner and family lived just down the street at what is now a restaurant, dinner theater, boutique hotel and haunted tour site that opened more than 40 years ago, in 1977. The 1860s-era mansion was home to the Lemp family until 1949 and has seen its share of tragedy, mystery and local lore. History buffs and thrill-seekers come for the stories, but the cuisine is worth the visit – most famously, its Sunday family-style chicken dinners with 10 different bottomless sides. The regular menu centers on French- and German-inspired homestyle fare such as an open-faced Prosperity sandwich with ham, turkey, bacon and a three-cheese blend or New Orleans-inspired blackened shrimp over white Cheddar grits. Also notable is the bananas Foster dessert, which has been prepared tableside – flames and all – since the restaurant first opened four decades ago.
The eclectic neighborhood also shines at nighttime, when clubs and bars feed an energetic, late-night crowd. No matter the time, Cherokee Street is a bustling community blending historic mainstays and authentic Latino-run restaurants and businesses with up-and-coming breweries, craft bars and hip eateries.
“Cherokee is truly the most independent area in St. Louis,” says Jeremy Miller of The Mud House and Vista. “There are a lot of artists, and it’s incredibly diverse. What’s going on down here, you can’t force it. It’s very natural.”
La Vallesana, 2801 Cherokee St., Benton Park West, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.776.4223, neverialavallesana.com
The Lemp Mansion Restaurant & Inn, 3322 DeMenil Place, Benton Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.664.8024, lempmansion.com
The Mud House, 2101 Cherokee St., Benton Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.776.6599, themudhousestl.com
Vista, 2609 Cherokee St., Benton Park West, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.797.8250, vistaramen.com