I don’t remember where the Guerrilla Street Food truck was parked the first time I visited it. Downtown, probably. Or possibly on the Wells Fargo campus in midtown. Cut me some slack, OK? This was nearly four years ago.
Even in that moment I might have struggled to recognize my surroundings as I took my first bite of the Flying Pig, the Filipino food truck’s signature dish: slow-roasted, pulled pork shoulder, pungent with garlic, hoisin sauce and the lime-like citrus fruit calamansi, served with a silken one-hour egg, Sriracha, scallions and black sesame seeds over rice.
The Flying Pig was as beautifully composed and as complexly flavored as anything being served at St. Louis’ most acclaimed upscale restaurants, and I was eating it on the side of a road with a plastic fork out of one of those paper trays, white with red cross-hatching, that you usually associate with lukewarm nachos at a school fair.
Where was I? What was happening?
In retrospect, of course, what was happening was obvious. For several years now, the dominant dining trend has been the move toward more casual restaurants. There are any number of reasons for this change, and as many consequences. Of the latter, the most important might be this: Chefs and diners alike are no longer constrained by the notion that great food and fine dining are synonymous.
Certainly, no one will mistake Guerrilla Street Food’s brick-and-mortar operation, which opened in July on Arsenal Street at South Grand Boulevard, for a white-tablecloth palace. The space is small and dark, though not without a little style: Geek icon Boba Fett’s helmet sits on one shelf; the Internet-connected TV is as likely to be streaming cartoons as music. You order at the counter, and your food arrives in shallow black plastic bowls — a marginal step up from the truck’s paper trays.
Paper trays? Plastic bowls? Who cares? Chef-owners Joel Crespo and Brian Hardesty, drawing from traditional Filipino ingredients and recipes, with a generous ladling of their imaginations, are serving some of St. Louis’ most vibrant, creative fare. Whether you’re already a fan of the truck or a complete Guerrilla Street Food novice, the storefront should be one of your most anticipated new restaurants of 2015.
The menu here of course includes the truck’s staples: the Flying Pig ($8) and such Filipino classics as chicken adobo ($7) and fresh lumpia ($4). (The prices listed here are for the brick-and-mortar operation only. In addition, some entrees are available as a larger portion for $2 more.)
At the restaurant, however, Crespo and Hardesty can serve dishes previously available on the truck only occasionally. This includes the Belly of the Beast ($9), slices of pork belly with scallions and fried garlic over coconut-cream rice. The pork hits that belly sweet spot: crisp exterior, tender meat and just enough fat to feel like an indulgence. A fish-sauce glaze gives the pork an incredible depth of flavor — Filipino fish sauce, Crespo tells me, is generally darker than what you find in other cuisines; or, as he put it, “We keep it dirty” — while thin orange wedges, calamansi and serrano chiles brighten and lighten all that luscious fat and umami richness.
Fruit is Guerrilla Street Food’s unsung hero. Sometimes, it’s the simple sour-acid bite of calamansi cutting through dense, spicy longanisa sausage and oyster mushrooms in the Guerrilla Typhoon ($9). The tocino ribs ($12), an occasional special, serves three tender pork ribs in a sweet, spicy banana ketchup, but what truly jolts the dish is the side of atchara, an intensely puckering slaw of pickled papaya.
The Iron Manok ($10) comes closest to the Flying Pig in my affections. It, too, is beautifully plated, with two fried chicken thighs criss-crossed with two different sauces, one umber, the other vivid yellow. The first sauce is hoisin, and its sweet, spicy funk is an ideal pair for the fried chicken. The second sauce is mango-bagoong, a combination of the fruit and a Filipino shrimp paste, and its own combination of sweetness and fermented umami both reinforces the other sauce and shows how two similar profiles can result in vastly different flavors.
These sorts of brilliant touches are so common that an otherwise fine dish stands out for their lack. The Bicol Express ($8), a perfectly serviceable rice bowl with pork, garlic, ginger and jalapeños, is meaty and spicy but without as much depth.
The beverage selection is limited. There is water and Excel sodas, but as at the truck, your go-to order should be the tart, sweet calamansi cooler. Poured into a plastic cup, it’s the antithesis of everything an excellent restaurant once was, and exactly what makes Guerrilla Street Food an excellent restaurant in 2015.
Where Guerrilla Street Food, 3559 Arsenal Street • Three starsout of four • More info 314-529-1328; guerrillastreetfood.com • Menu Filipino-inspired fare • Hours Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Excellent ★★★★ Extraordinary