Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with toasted ravioli from Missouri, which joined the union on August 10, 1821.
The state: One of the best jokes ever to hit The Simpsons cartoon series probably whizzed right by you. As young Bart Huck Finns his way down the Mississippi River, he passes a sign that says "Now leaving Missouri" and, shortly thereafter, another sign that says "Now Entering Missouruh." A true bastion of the Mid-South, Missouri is somehow a plains state, a midwestern state and weirdo Dixie country all at once, with St. Louis and Kansas City both evenly split between lazy drawls and Midwestern twangs; both cities are also brutally segregated along black-white lines, and hunker over opposite state lines. Note: Do not go to East St. Louis, Illinois (unless you're frisky). Do not go to Kansas City, Kansas (unless you're boring). In any case, St. Louis was the starting point for the Oregon Trail, which means that St. Louis is the number one cause of dysentery in the United States. Let's eat!
The food: Kansas City barbecue is of course well known, and well documented. You've had the ribs (or someone's half-assed version of them), and the sauce is in your fridge. But St. Louis? St. Louis food is a strange parallel universe, in which the normal rules do not seem to apply. Barbecue is grilled. Steak is pork. Ice cream isn't ice cream; it's frozen custard. Pizza is cut square, and comes topped with a plasticky cheese substance called Provel, which seemingly everyone in St Louis is wild about. Restaurants in the "Hill", St. Louis' Italian sector, will grate Provel over your pasta unless you stop them. Almost none of St. Louis' food ever leaves St. Louis. It is a private language, understood only in its own city. Except, that is, for the trashy delight of toasted ravioli. "Toasted" is what St. Louis calls "breaded and fried." Order toasted ravioli in St. Louis and you get a plate of big breaded pasta pillows stuffed with provolone and beef or veal, served 'round a bowl of marinara dipper. There are two competing versions of how this dish was created, but both of them involve a midcentury Italian chef on the Hill accidentally dropping his ravioli into the oil and saying Mamma mia!
Other dishes considered and rejected: Pork steak (where are you, pork steak?), Kansas City ribs, Provel cheese, Imo's/cracker-crust pizza, frozen custard, Gerber sandwich, Saint Paul sandwich, St. Louis-cut ribs.
Get it from: The Alameda Brewhouse (4765 NE Fremont St, 460-9025) has a toasted ravioli that contains merely provolone—which is to say it's a bit closer to how the dish got picked up in the New England states. They are essentially Applebee's cheese sticks on crack, with some of that same weird reheated fried starch-on-starch flavor. I found myself instead pining for the meat-filled pockets of St. Louis. Alas, these are found to our knowledge only in a food cart, Lou's Ragin' Ravioli (4926 SE Division St.), that was closed on three attempted visits during its posted business hours, and the owner did not respond to calls or texts asking when they'd be open. Lou? Where you been, Lou? We miss you. I know it's hot out there, but we miss you.
Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.