It has happened to all of us: On the road, exploring new places, boldly going where we’ve never gone before, and we see something new. Something different. Something that makes our stomachs want to find out more.

Here are a few of those culinary surprises we’ve found in our travels.

Of course, there are many more we haven’t stumbled upon yet. If you’ve come across any pleasant surprises on the highways, byways, and backroads—or maybe in your neighborhood—we’d like to know about them.

The only thing we enjoy more than traveling is eating.

Nixta’s unique menu and flavor combinations defy being classified into a singular type

Nixta, St. Louis

It’s surprising to find such sophisticated food flowing from a tiny restaurant tucked into Botanical Heights, an old, urban St. Louis neighborhood. The location is not glitzy. The restaurant is not splashy. Yet Nixta, opened last November by restaurateur Ben Poremba, shines like a searchlight beacon because Ben hired Tello Carreon as executive chef.

Although billed as a Mexican restaurant, Nixta escapes pigeonholing. Sure, the dining room’s turquoise, coral, and neon blue decor reinforces a Mexican theme. And menu items wear Mexican names. But Tello cooks a distinctive personal cuisine that breaks through ethnic boundaries.

A Mexican native/St. Louis transplant, Tello infuses Nixta’s dishes with Mexican, upscale American, French, and Mediterranean flavors and cooking techniques. His fajitas contain sturgeon, parsnips, and cashew-black lime salsa. His tostadas embrace tuna, sugar snaps, and lime-white shoyu glaze. He dresses ceviche with rose water espuma. The most traditional Mexican dish on the menu stems from Tello’s grandmother’s recipe for mole negro, a deeply complex sauce usually coating chicken, but at Nixta, gracing succulent beef cheeks.

Nixta’s menu features the seasonally fresh, so items may change, but Tello is a chef for all seasons and always delivers a multicultural mix of dazzling creativity.

To supplement Tello’s food, Nixta’s bar offers a spirited variety of beverages including south-of-the-border beers, tequilas, mezcal, jugos and house-designed cócteles.

Nixta serves dinner from 5 PM to 10 PM Tuesday through Saturday and the thirteen tables fill quickly, especially on weekends. Reservations are recommended.—Susan Katzman

1621 Tower Grove Avenue • 314- 899-9000 • NixtaSTL.com

LaBinnah Bistro’s CHICAGO features oven-roasted, boneless chicken breast with an apricot-ginger glaze.

Labinnah Bistro, Hannibal

In a two-story, brick 1870 Victorian home, a mixture of Mediterranean, European, and American cuisine is waiting to be discovered.

One might not expect to find a wide selection of Mediterranean dishes in the childhood hometown of Mark Twain. But Twain said taste was made and not born. And the bill of fare at LaBinnah Bistro continues to make believers of all who visit.

One local favorite is the Gemini, a baked boneless chicken breast stuffed with spinach, cheeses, Portabella mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, and top-secret exotic seasonings. The menu offers treats from across the globe (Shrimps Istanbul) to Washington state (The Seattle), and wine pairings for each dish. You can even get a Missouri-grown ranch steak. Vegetarian dishes are also available.

Opened in 2008, the twenty-eight-seat bistro is the ideal place for an intimate dinner of international fare.

LaBinnah is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Although it doesn’t take reservations, the bistro recently opened the Green Room, where customers can have a glass of wine while waiting to be seated.

And just where did the bistro’s name come from? Spell it backward. —Lori A. Addington

207 North Fifth Street • 573-221-8207 • LaBinnahBistro.com

Lots of fun things are flying overhead at the Hangar Kafe.

Hangar Cafe, Miller

Here’s an interesting dining destination that has people coming from all four compass points, as well as dropping from the sky.

Land at Kingsley Airfield in Lawrence County, and you’re just a few steps away from the best homemade onion rings in southwest Missouri. Kiman and Darlene Kingsley reimagined an airplane hangar to house their “Kafe” in 2013, just a few feet away from the airstrip. If your flying machine is in the shop, there’s also a parking lot for more conventional travel.

Watch your head when walking in or you might bump into the model airplanes and hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling. While enjoying one of their delicious pork tenderloin sandwiches, you can watch planes as they land and take off. You may even see a skydiver or two drop from the sky.

You won’t find any shortage of fuel in the Hangar Kafe. Try the western omelet for breakfast. It’s filled with peppers, onions, ham, and cheese. For lunch, the Baggage Burger is another filling choice: a hamburger with ham served on a bed of lettuce and tomato on Texas toast. And you can never go wrong with hand-dipped chicken-fried steak with white gravy. No passenger will leave the Hangar hungry.

The Hangar Kafe is open 7 AM to 4 PM Sunday through Wednesday, and 7 AM to 9 PM Thursday through Saturday.—Lori A. Addington

3103 Lawrence 1070 • 417-452-2277

Porky’s Blazin’ Bar-B-Q suddenly appears as you’re driving down Buckner-Tarsney Road south of Grain Valley. Stop in weekends for award-winning ribs, pork, and brisket.

Porky’s Blazin Bar-B-Q, Grain Valley

Taking Buckner-Tarsney Road from Interstate 70 (the Grain Valley exit) south to US 50 might seem like a good way to get away from it all. And it is—until you come across the bright red barn seemingly out in the middle of nowhere that suggests a culinary discovery is in the making.

Porky’s Blazin Bar-B-Q has gained a solid reputation as one of the Kansas City area’s best barbecue joints.

In March 2016, Scott Roberts took over Porky’s to follow in his father Dennis’s footsteps of owning his own restaurant. Dennis was the proprietor of Mozarks Barbecue in Clinton. Scott learned the secrets of pit barbecue at the master’s side.

Every Friday, Scott opens the doors at Porky’s Blazin Bar-B-Q for the weekend. “I feel like I need to be there, to talk to the customers,” he explains.

Every cut of meat is slow smoked to perfection. “We don’t use gas or charcoal, only wood,” Scott says. Porky’s technique of wood-smoked pork, brisket, and ribs is what sets the restaurant apart, and the numerous barbecue competition awards Scott has earned show he has learned his craft well.

Alongside a selection of mouth-watering smoked meats, Porky’s offers three different savory sauces—mild, sweet, and spicy—as well as a blazin’ hot option. Sample all and pick a favorite.

And no barbecue meal is complete without sides. Try Porky’s beans, coleslaw, or potato and pasta salads. Open 11 AM to 8 PM Friday and Saturday and 11 AM to 3 PM Sunday.—Lori A. Addington

9512 S. Buckner-Tarsney Road, Grain Valley • 816-566-0203 • Porkys-BlazinBBQ.com

Loaded baked potato soup is just one popular menu item at St. James Marketplace Cafe. Enjoy it with fresh-baked bread.

St. James Marketplace Cafe, St. James

When you walk into the St. James Marketplace Cafe, you never know exactly what you might find baking in the oven or bubbling on the stovetop. What began as a farmers’ market produce stand has grown to be St. James’s most popular cafe and catering business.

“I had been very successful at two local farmers’ markets with breads, pies, cakes, cookies, and jellies, with customers lamenting the end of the summer season. I decided it was time to step out on faith,” says Deb Kleinheider, who with her mother, Helen Branson, opened the restaurant in December 2013.

“We had driven by one location for several days,” Helen says. “When we walked in and saw the pass-through between a large kitchen and living room, it clicked.”

On any given day, one of forty different soups will be simmering in the kitchen. One fan favorite—the loaded baked potato soup—is available every day. Besides the large variety of soups, St. James Marketplace Cafe offers freshly baked bread, and Deb and Helen whip up their own salad dressings and sandwich spreads.

“Every day, the large convection oven is filled with our own breads, both savory and sweet, ranging from focaccia to dill to Asiago cheese,” Deb says. The cafe is open from 9:30 AM to 2:30 PM Monday through Friday.—Lori A. Addington

211 North Seymour Street • 573-263-2557 • Facebook: St. James Marketplace Cafe