A place in the greater St. Louis area that has been on my radar for quite some time - Iron Barley - has gained a measure of national notoriety over the past couple three years after it was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network, and Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. I had first discovered Iron Barley in an article in (I believe it was) Gourmet magazine a number of years ago, but I had never gotten around to go have a meal there. I had a meeting with a potential dealer on the south side of St. Louis recently and found out that Iron Barley was located just off of Interstate 55. I made it a point to stop for lunch when I was down that way.
Iron Barley began in 2001 when longtime chef Tom Coghill decided to trade in his corporate chef's hat for a bandana and offer a down-home, Southern style of food fare in a unpretentious setting. Coghill had been a chef at the Hyatt which was formerly at Union Station, then at the old Adam's Mark hotel in St. Louis. He then went to Frazer's, an eclectic restaurant in the Benton Park area of St. Louis, just across Interstate 55 from the Anheuser-Busch brewery. While at Frazer's, Coghill began to experiment with cooking food in an iron skillet using his co-workers as "guinea pigs". Most of the concoctions that he came up with were done by the seat of his pants, but some of the better ideas he came up with showed up on the menu when he opened in May of 2003. The name Iron Barley comes from Coghill's pairing of iron skillet-made food with his love for the finest in locally and Midwestern micro-brews that he offers at his place.
Pictured at right - Tom Coghill (Picture courtesy Riverfront Times)
Coghill struggled for quite some time getting his little place the exposure that it needed. He was having to cut hours and staff when Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives showed up in the fall of 2007 to film a segment on his funky little place. Between the time the piece was filmed and when it was aired in March of 2008, Coghill was contemplating closing his doors. But after it was shown on The Food Network, and the subsequent showing of his place on Man vs. Food, business has been brisk. Coghill was quoted in an article in the Riverfront Times that his appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives "saved me".
Coghill smokes his meats with oak wood giving it a backyard type of flavor with his chicken, seafood, beef and pork. The "Sammiches" feature old style comfort food favorites such as a hot beef sandwich to the more bizarre Ballistic Elvis - strawberry jam with crunchy peanut butter, grilled bananas, and topped with American cheese and hot pepper flakes on Texas toast. (For a couple bucks more, you can have it topped with bacon.) And the Iron Barley is famous for their hot dogs, most significantly the Monte Cristo - 2 1/2 grilled hot dogs topped with strawberry jam and Swiss cheese. I understand their chili dogs - also 2 1/2 grilled hot dogs with a liberal amount of homemade chili on top - are pretty damn good.
It was just before noon when I pulled up in front of the Iron Barley on E. Virginia Ave., just off Exit 203 on Interstate 55. (see map) The neighborhood looks a little mixed and signs in front of the place warned people to not leave valuables in plain sight in your car. I walked through the front door and it puts you in the bar area with the dining room off to the left. The first thing that sort of took me aback was that it wasn't that large of a place. The dining room featured brick walls with barn board molding along the top. The tables and chairs are nothing fancy - it's truly a bar that has food.
The bar area at Iron Barley features a few tables and chairs along the wall with a seven seat bar on the opposite side. The kitchen is in the back with a pick up window that allows you to see inside. The decor at Iron Barley is probably best categorized as "funky chic". I immediately liked it.
I ended up sitting at the bar and picked up a menu that was sitting in a holder at the bar. It was a basic menu printed on paper, nothing fancy, just like Iron Barley. But the food is a different story. Other than the aforementioned smoked meats, "sammiches" and hot dogs, Iron Barley has some soup and salads, lunch "sammiches" that are served up to 4:00 p.m. (Those include a strip steak sandwich topped with chili mayo, and a fried egg sandwich with two eggs topped with lettuce, tomato, bacon, American and provel cheeses with Russian dressing on toasted rye bread.) The entrees at Iron Barley are an interesting mix of American and International foods such as Oak roasted pork chops, schnitzel and spaetzle, and a Spanish seafood stew called Zarzuela that has shrimp, mussels, clams, squid and pieces of whitefish in a tomato saffron sauce with wagon wheel pasta.
My bartender/server came over to greet me and she told me of three specials they had that day - a homemade lasagna, chili mac and cheese (Iron Barley's homemade chili mixed with elbow macaroni and topped with cheese), and a barbecue brisket sandwich. A homemade pasta salad came with the brisket sandwich along with their homemade caraway cole slaw. I had looked through the menu before she came over and when she said "Barbecue brisket sandwich", I sort of forgot about everything else. When I stepped out of my car, I could smell the pungent oak wood smoke in the air. I took the brisket sandwich special. Or wait - I mean, "SAMMICH"!
Not long after I ordered, my sandwich with sides was set down in front of me. The sandwich was served open face on a toasted hoagie bun which was covered with a liberal amount of sliced brisket. The sauce was cooked in with the sliced meat.
From the first bite, I was hooked. Now, I really wish that I could discern spices in food better than I do, but the taste of the sauce with the meat was very different from most other barbecue sauces that I had. I could tell there was some chili powder in the barbecue sauce as it gave the taste of the meat a little kick. But there were some other spices in the sauce that confounded me. All I knew is that I liked it. The brisket was thin and tender and I ate the beef off the bread to be able to experience the whole flavor.
The caraway cole slaw had a sort of pinkish color to it, but it had a fine flavor with a hint of caraway. But the pasta salad was a big hit - large chunks of tomatoes and artichoke hearts with wagon wheel pasta in a creamy Italian dressing. It had a great taste and went well with the smoky, spicy taste of the barbecue beef sandwich.
Iron Barley also has a once a month Beer Club of tastings of local and Midwestern craft beers on their patio in the back. The beers they have on tap, as well as in bottles, is an interesting mix. I understand that their beer tasting - usually featuring five or six different beers - is a popular event.
Iron Barley was everything that I hoped it would be. Interesting food, eclectic beers, and a fun and funky sort of personality to the place. I'm not certain I'm going to be able to sign up the dealer in South St. Louis, but I can see me coming back to the Iron Barley to try something else at some point. I was extremely happy with my sandwich - whoops! SAMMICH! And the sides were very good, as well. A trip to Iron Barley has been a long time coming for me and the wait was well worth it.