The argument about cursed locations for restaurants went on for a bit when The Shack opened on Laclede near Saint Louis University. But the fact is, the building was originally the motherhouse for the Caleco's group, the folks that made thicker, non-provel pizza easily accessible, and then popular, around town. I spent a fair amount of time there, what with living in LaClede Town, doing evening classes at SLU and working at Barnes. The plentiful plants and stained glass were classic fern bar, and the pizza was good enough that we learned to accept what seemed godawful waits for the pies.
After Caleco's expired, other places, all rather nondescript, came and went. And then the guys from the Tavern on Dougherty Ferry Road decided to open The Shack in that spot. Over the years, the original building expanded, so it's difficult to visualize what it was, but in some areas, the old vibes still murmur. It's large, generously but not excessively televisioned, with several dining rooms, lots of big tables, and, for what comes suspiciously close to a college bar, well and politely staffed. Still, there's a kids' menu, but after 9 p.m., announces a sign at the door, no one under 21 will be admitted.
The menu is large and interesting, although it may be advisable to step carefully around too much lily-gilding. Nachos come with beef or pulled pork toppings. The pulled pork seems like a good idea, with a chipotle barbecue sauce and some green chile salsa, too. A little hit of smokiness in the nacho cheese sauceworks well. But the pork itself is quite sweet, enough that it overwhelms the peppers and demands a good hit of the Cholula sauce at the tables. (Interestingly, the leftovers made for a surprisingly tasty batch of chilaquiles.) On the other hand, the wings flew, so to speak, the 7-spice Buffalo sauce vinegary, hot and laced with wee bits of garlic. (Other options are kung pao and the chipotle barbecue sauces.) And they hadn't been breaded, always a plus.
Burgers, of course, but it seems there's a reason they're not listed until the diner flips over the menu for the reverse side. A Shack burger, flat-grilled style, comes with lettuce, tomato, onion and Shack Sauce, pinkish and slightly sweet-sour. I hope the dryness of the burger was an aberration, because it was so acute the vegetables and sauce didn't save things. Flat-grilled burgers can be great, but this one wasn't.
Where there are burgers, there also shall be fries. And these are absolutely first-rate fries, fresh and hot and clearly hand-cut. That said, here too be cautious with add-ons. There are several offerings of what the menu calls loaded french fries, going well beyond the traditional-ish chili fries. The problem with all these is that they wet down the excellent potatoes, losing their crispness, their heat and their charm. A version called green eggs and ham started off with creamed spinach, added lardons of pork belly, some green onion and a soft-fried egg. Certainly it sounded good, but it was just Too Much Stuff. Fries sans toppings are on the reverse side of the menu.
Tacos? Here? Curious eaters want to know. Well, it's not Cherokee Street, and it's not fair to judge by those standards, but these were surprisingly good. Served on flour tortillas, the fish taco was hot and crisp and topped with the proper cabbage, cilantro and onion. But the pork belly taco, with a pineapple salsa absolutely swung, a great combination of flavors and textures, no need for additional seasoning - its heat was mild but pleasant - and bursting with fun. They really should serve more than one eensy bartender's cut of lime with two tacos, though.
It's not quite within walking distance, at least at night, of the Grand Center attractions. But service is mostly rapid and parking is easy.
The Shack Pubgrub
3818 Laclede Ave.
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair