Lona’s Lil Eats
This Fox Park restaurant is heating up for its first full summer.
ONE OF ST. LOUIS’ BIGGEST PROS is the amount of independent eateries we’re blessed with—the amount of locally owned restaurants has been known to merit more than a few compliments from visitors. And the ultra-buzzy Lona’s Lil’ Eats is truly a gem— albeit a hidden one—on the STL food scene. Its off-the-beaten-path Fox Park location mirrors some of the uncommon Thai fusion flavors on its menu (think spicy eggplant and pickled bamboo stew) but its customizable, healthy entrees ensure that there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Lona’s original location is a stall at the Soulard Farmers Market, where it’s a little off-the-beaten path in contrast to the market’s standard snacks. Flavor influences come from Luo’s home village in China’s Yunnan province, where Chinese cooking carries a heavy South Asian influence. Business took off, thanks to their unique fresh-eats concept, and now, the brick-and-mortar space has even more St. Louisans raving.
HEALTHY EATING Lona’s reputation built gradually from the handmade dumplings (aka potstickers) Luo and Powers started selling in the market in 2008. Filled with steak or mushrooms, plus spices and onion, they’re addictive: A six-piece order is almost never enough. The restaurant’s other starter is fresh spring rolls with chicken, steak or vegetables. Here, two choices for a starter isn’t lacking—it’s simply a prelude for the restaurant’s crown jewel: its customizable wraps.
Customers pick a vessel (a rice paper wrap, tortilla or simply a dish), a protein (chicken, turkey, shrimp, steak or spicy tofu), a staple (salad, rice or noodles) and a sauce. This last part is where things really get interesting: The flavor profiles, from spicy to smoky to citrusy, can change the entire character of the dish. Add the Asian barbecue sauce to the pulled turkey, for example, and you’ll find a very familiar group of flavors. In other wrap incarnations, the lemongrass pesto has hints of citrus, and the spicy sesame echoes flavors of Luo’s South Asian roots.
Skimming the most conveniently posted popular combinations will give you a feel for those that work well together—and the hungriest (or most ambitious) diners can order the Five-Star Platter, loaded with all five protein options, plus two sides and a sauce.
BAR HOPPING The outstanding feature of the bar is a glass punch bowl, filled daily with a different elixir. The rotating libration, the menu explains, is a throwback to the historic punches of the 17th century, when mixology’s formula was poetic: “one part sour, one part sweet, four parts strong and six parts weak.” Sometimes the punch is tea-infused, but it can also be on the fruitier side: One delicious concoction of whiskey, rye, rum, freshly sliced pineapple and lemon juice had the customers waiting in line to order, clamoring for shot-sized samples.
Lona’s also offers local beers, but most customers who aren’t into the punch are drinking either Ski sodas from Illinois or wine. Fast-casual customers are getting used to receiving their wine glasses and bottles at the counter rather than from a bartender—which, on one hand, means that there’s less opportunity to ask about wines. At Lona’s though, you can hardly go wrong: The reds and whites alike are on the lighter, mellower end of the spectrum and are picked to match up well with Asian spices.
The setup is typical of the thoughtful simplicity that goes into all aspects of dining at Lona’s—from the utilitarian serving trays to the house-made sauces and pickles. Honing their skills at their Soulard Market stall for seven-plus years clearly served the owners well when the time came to kick things up a notch. There are lovely write-ups about Thai and Chinese cuisines on the restaurant’s homepage, but it all boils down to a simple philosophy: combining the traditional Chinese attention to cooking methods and the Thai attention to balance. It’s what makes Luo’s home region unique—and, by extension, what makes this corner restaurant in St. Louis unique too.
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg