i’m goin’ to kansas city…
NOTE: This post has been updated. CLICK HERE.
Wilbert Harrison made Kansas City a singable destination in 1959 when his version of the song “Kansas City” topped both the R&B and Billboard charts. The song not only earned him a place in the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame (posthumously in 2001), but came to be counted among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll.
The song’s popularity caught on with other artists. Fats Domino sang a version, and so did the Beatles.* In 2005, the song was adopted as Kansas City’s official song.
With an equally infectious spirit, Arthur Bryant made Kansas City an edible destination the year before Harrison’s musical hit when Bryant moved his family’s barbecue restaurant to its current location at 1727 Brooklyn. Near Kansas City’s then-Municipal Stadium, home to the Blues and the Chiefs, it became a popular place among fans and athletes alike.
In 1974, Calvin Trillin put Arthur Bryant’s on the international map when he wrote about it in Playboy, declaring it “the single best restaurant in the world…”
Dramatic and hyperbolic, Trillin’s praises took root, and the restaurant’s renown steadily grew. Everyone from Steven Spielberg to Robert Redford has eaten at Arthur Bryant’s. And I’m fairly certain that every presidential candidate since Trillin’s article published has eaten here (I’m not implying that any of them read Playboy. Well, maybe just for the articles.).
And why shouldn’t they?
Whether or not I like it (more on that later), Arthur Bryant’s serves some of the nation’s most highly esteemed barbecue. The restaurant has almost become de rigueur for any first-time visitor to my hometown. And a bottle of their “Sweet Heat” barbecue sauce has become my standard-issue gift when visiting friends abroad (some of you have been so lucky despite the TSA’s intensifying attempts to prevent the glass-bottled elixir from making it to its final destination).
But Arthur Bryant’s alone does not Kansas City make.
While we have a considerable amount of barbecue, in the past decade Kansas City has undergone a culinary renaissance. Whereas we were once dominated by (because locals favored) national chains and fast food restaurants, the trend has shifted. I’m happy to say that our city has an ever-increasing number of locally owned restaurants that are getting noticed by diners here and across the country.
Our dining scene has also diversified tremendously. We’ve got everything from injera to bi bim bap to dim sum. We’ve got open-air farm dinners and underground supper clubs. Amuses bouches and petits fours have become commonplace and we proudly drink locally roasted coffee and brewed beer.
We’ve got a restaurant for every occasion, every budget, and every age. We are no longer a fly-over, drive-through city.
I get a surprising number of requests for dining advice for cities around the world. However, none please me more than those seeking information about restaurants and eateries in my hometown.
For a number of reasons, I choose not to blog about my dining experiences in Kansas City. But I eat out a staggering amount in my hometown (if you don’t believe me, CLICK HERE). I know my turf well.
So, in the spirit of sharing in this new year, I give you my digest on the current state of dining in Kansas City. The following is a list of some of my favorite restaurants listed alphabetically within their categories.
- Blue Bloods -
Kansas City is not New York, Paris, or Tokyo. Fine dining is a very fuzzy concept here. [n2] In my opinion, there are really only two restaurants in Kansas City that qualify for the category. In Kansas City, they’re as good as it gets. I would highly recommend both.
After a nine-year hiatus, James Beard Award-winning chef Debbie Gold is back in the kitchen at The American Restaurant where she started cooking in Kansas City after having closed her own restaurant, 40 Sardines. Originally a collaboration between Hallmark (money), James Beard (menu), and Warren Platner (interior), the designer of Windows on the World, The American Restaurant has been Kansas City’s standard bearer of luxury for over 35 years (you can read about its history on its website). Though the restaurant’s interior is in dire need of a make-over, the food here is excellent. Gold’s food is at its best when it walks the Mediterranean rim – the chef has a good flair for bold flavors and hearty compositions, which she presents in a refined style. Pastry Chef Nick Wesemann is a veritable genius. His creative, witty, and delicious desserts could easily hold their own against some of the most innovative pastry kitchens in the country. Both Gold and Wesemann’s dishes were among the best dishes I had in 2009. The butter they serve here is one of the best I’ve had in the country. Having, perhaps, the deepest pockets of any locally owned restaurant, The American Restaurant maintains one of the most extensive wine lists in the city and access to some specialty products that are rare, if not otherwise non-existent in the city.
In any large city, bluestem would be a very good neighborhood restaurant. Chef-patrons Colby and Megan Garrelts’s 40-seater is cozy and comfortable, without pretense or pretext. In its now-five-year history, it has handily (and, in my opinion, deservedly) taken its place at the summit of Kansas City’s dining scene. For out-of-towners “in the know,” bluestem usually tops their list of restaurants to visit in Kansas City. I’ve eaten here too many times to count – totaling somewhere near, if not over the century mark. Colby Garrelt’s foie gras au torchon and Wagyu beef tartare have become classics – rightfully so. The only dishes that are perennially on the menu, they are superb. Having a more homey and comforting appeal, Megan Garrelts’s pastries are a delight. And, if you can manage to grab a reservation, bluestem serves one of the best brunches in town. Focus on the Wagyu corned beef hash – tender pieces of beef enrobed in a rich, spicy sauce and topped with a fried egg (I prefer mine poached). There’s also a wiener schnitzel-sized chicken fried steak smothered with gravy and masterfully turned omelets that are fluffy, buttery, and delicious.
– Bourgeoisie -
While Kansas City only has a couple of fine dining restaurants, we have a large culinary middle class. These restaurants make up the bulk of Kansas City’s best restaurants. They range from family-friendly, neighborhood restaurants to a special nights out with your main squeeze (I’ve always wanted to write that).
Who would think that a second city restaurant could be so good? Lidia Bastianich’s eponymous restaurant, now a decade old, serves the closest thing you’ll get to eating on The Boot in Kansas City. The doyenne of New York Italian cuisine brings her brand of northern-Italian (specifically, the Friuli region) food to Kansas City in a gorgeously revised freight house in the downtown “Crossroads” district. Designed by David Rockwell, in addition to having masterfully presented Italian food, the restaurant wins my vote for the best-looking restaurant in the city. No visit here is complete without an order of Bastianich’s signature frico. The fegato (pan-seared chicken livers, juicy and pink on the inside) – served on a fluffy cloud of polenta – are phenomenal. And at $22, the three-course brunch (including an all-you-can-eat antipasti and dolci feast) may be the best one in town.
After a James Beard-award-winning run at The American Restaurant with Debbie Gold, Michael Smith continued his culinary success with Gold at 40 Sardines, a trendy, casual, restaurant that they opened together in the middle of 2002. Sadly, the two parted ways in late 2006 and the restaurant eventually closed in March of 2008 after a prolonged period of decline. In July of 2007, Michael Smith stenciled his name on the door at 1900 Main Street (a few blocks away from Lidia’s) and remade the formerly drab and cold space (previously occupied by the restaurant zin) into a rather hip and upmarket restaurant serving lunch and dinner. While I can’t say I’ve been enthusiastic about everything on his menu (his signature rabbit gnocchi, for example, I find monochromatic and monoflavored), some of Smith’s best dishes, which rotate seasonally, are truly great. He walks a heavier line around southern Europe, favoring flavors of Provence, Spain, and Italy. Not a pastry chef by training, Smith turns out surprisingly great desserts, like wedges of spoon-ripe pears served with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and honey, and sticky chocolate pudding cake with bourbon sauce.
3. Room 39
If there’s one chef whose culinary growth I’ve personally witnessed, it’s Ted Habiger, owner and executive chef of Room 39. I can’t keep track of where Habiger spends most of his time – at the cozy and intimate original restaurant on 39th Street in Midtown (pressed tin ceilings and peek-a-boo brick walls), or at their slightly trendier, second restaurant in the posh Mission Farms shopping district. Though the menus at each are a touch different and the selections change from day to day, I’ve become assured that I’ll get a wonderful, seasonally-focused meal at either location. Molly Breidenthal, chef de cuisine in Midtown, skews more rustic, hugging the Mediterranean more. Brandon Winn, chef de cuisine in Mission Farms, ventures around the world, mostly with success. Having worked in New York at Union Square Cafe, Habiger’s food approach to food is straightforward and flavorful. Once his Achille’s heels, the desserts here now are better than ever. Winn’s goat cheese “beignets” at the Mission Farms location are a must. Both Room 39s serve three square meals a day. I have yet to visit for breakfast.
Having traveled and cooked in the Navy, chef-patron John McClure shares his culinary experiences at Starker’s Restaurant on the Country Club Plaza. Son of a Kansas rancher, McClure cooks “big” food. Best described as upscale comfort food, his American-style cuisine is bold, hearty and generously portioned. Having worked under Frank Brigsten’s in New Orleans, he has a special fondness for Creole and Cajun flavors; you can’t miss the influence on his menu. Order whatever you think might appeal to a farmer and you probably can’t go terribly wrong. Although I’ve had many very good desserts here, my favorite might just be McClure’s “warm cookie plate,” an assortment of five or six cookies all from his grandmother’s recipe box.
Jimmy Frantze’s loss is Joe DiGiovani’s gain. Linda Duerr left Frantze’s restaurant, JJ’s, where she had first caught my attention nearly a year ago. After a few months, she surfaced at DiGiovanni’s trendy new restaurant Zest in the high-dollar Mission Farms Development. With dishes that initially waffled between meh and eh, the restaurant’s humorously captioned menu now sings with Duerr’s wonderful, rustic, Old World creations. Currently, there’s a fantastic Spanish roasted garlic and almond bread soup and a rewardingly thick and spicy Moroccan lamb chili. She makes one heck of a fish and chips platter (cod, scallops, shrimp, and planks of sweet potato fries). Her bread pudding is delicious. So is her caramel apple pie. [Update:In June of 2010, Zest was sold by DiGiovani to the owners of Avenues Bistro. Linda Duerr is out of a job (once again). A new chef has yet to be named. Until I give Zest a few tries under new management, I can no longer recommend it.]
- Yuppies -
The yuppies and trend-setters in this town have got to eat somewhere. I’d argue that the ones with good taste are found here:
Here’s a rare exception – I blogged about my first couple of meals at blanc burgers + bottles. Since, they’ve expanded to two locations. And, this month, their original store in Westport (an offbeat, grungy part of town) is scheduled to move into a much larger space on the Country Club Plaza (our city’s upmarket shopping district). You want a fancy burger and look good eating it? Come here. Be prepared to wait (this problem might be resolved when the Westport store is relocated to the Plaza). My favorites? The “Meatloaf” burger and the “Pork” burger. Dessert: milkshake or a beef float; they have over 150 beers to choose from. The best part? You can walk out satisfied for under $15.
I’m loathed to even mention it, but I suppose it’s no secret that bluestem’s Lounge is serving some of the best food in the city – it’s telling when you find half of the city’s chefs here late-night after their shifts are over or on their days of. But the important scoop is that everything on the lounge menu is half price during happy hour, making it the place to eat to between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Although burgers fly out of their kitchen in staggering numbers (giving blanc burgers + bottles down the street a run for its money), right now, you’ll find me ordering “Meg’s Meatloaf,” a gargantuan tranche of velvety ground pork, beef, and bacon with a hard boiled egg suspended in the middle. It’s served on a mound of mashed potatoes with a tuft of brightly dressed greens. The Wagyu beef tartare, bound with truffled vinaigrette and topped with a raw egg yolk, is dangerously addictive (my sister orders it every time). So is the flight of sauces that comes with their truffled French fries.
3. The Mixx
I love salads. I probably eat more salads than any other type of food. The Mixx makes good salads. And if you don’t think so, they welcome you to make a better one. That’s what I usually do. This counter service restaurant offers a menu of salads and hot plates (pastas, soups, and breakfast items), or you can “mixx” your own salad from a pretty impressive selection of ingredients: three kinds of lettuce mixes, over three dozen “mixx-ins,” and a host of dressings. Casual, quick, and affordable, both locations are on my regular rotation.
4. R Bar
Alex Pope, formerly the sous chef at The American Restaurant under Debbie Gold, helped open R Bar in the second quarter of 2009 in the West Bottoms (right across the street from The Golden Ox – see Good Ole Boys). Still a fledgling, I’ve fallen in love with this place. Pope’s menu is wildly daring to great effects with a few misadventures sprinkled in between. Like the savory funnel cakes topped with a Srirachi aioli that he serves in lieu of bread, his food tends to be comforting, off-beat, and fun. I’ve seen a couple of turns of the menu by now, and I can say that his food is wildly creative, and usually delicious. A few things go off the rails – desserts are more interesting than good, for example – but if you’re in doubt, ask the servers – they’re pretty honest. n.b. There’s live music on the weekends. Unless you want to go deaf, insist on being seated in the far rear of the restaurant, or, avoid going on weekends entirely.
5. pizza bella
I have to admit, pizza bella’s pizzas are not revelatory. They will not whisk you away to Napoli. But they’re very good. The crusts are nobby around the rim – blistered and puffy. Overall, the dough has good elasticity (not so when the restaurant first opened). And having been baked in a wood-fired oven, the pies here are imbued with a nice smokiness. While there’s nothing wrong with a good, classic Pizza Margherita, my favorite pizza here is the “Potato,” which is paved with waxy fingerling coins and blue cheese. To cut the richness, it’s topped with a tuft of shredded radicchio dressed with balsamic. The antipasti of the day area generally great. The desserts, sadly, are weak. On a balmy day, the small patio section fronting the restaurant is one of my favorite spots in town.
- Meatheads –
Once home to the second largest stockyards in the country, beef plays an integral part of Kansas City’s dining culture.
Sadly, it is my opinion that we aim high and shoot low. Even though steaks should be high stakes here, I’m quite frankly ashamed of most of our local steakhouses. You can get a decent piece of meat at most of them (and most of it is over-priced for what it is), but the best steaks I’ve had in this city have been in a national chain steak house (initials are C.G.) and at non-steakhouse restaurants that care to source good quality meat.
For a city that claims to be the capital of steaks, we shouldn’t be trying to pass off wet-aged steaks as dry-aged steaks to unsuspecting diners. Remember, if it’s simply labeled as an “aged” steak, it’s most likely wet-aged. n3 A dry-aged steak will usually be proudly labeled “dry-aged.” When in doubt, ask. If your server doesn’t know the answer, that’s a whole other issue that I won’t bother addressing right now. Regardless, whether dry-aged, wet-aged, or not aged at all, the best beef in our city will probably be found in restaurants whose chefs/owners care about quality over quantity. Canvass the menus of the Blue Bloods and Bourgeoisie, as a starting point. If you’re specifically wanting dry-aged meat, call them and ask them if they have a good piece of dry-aged beef: I’d trust them. Better yet, head to McGonigle’s Market and buy your own meat. They’ve got an excellent selection – beef, pork, fowl, game, offal – and they’ll special order to meet your needs.
Kansas City is also home to some great sausage makers. Here are three that I think are worth checking out:
- Good Ole Boys -
Kansas City has its fair share of institutions. The vast majority of them, in my opinion, exist more as novel, culturally obligatory, and anthropological destinations than the loci of a great meal. Although you’ll rarely find me in any of these restaurants, a visit will certainly win you an authentic Kansas City experience. I will not, however, vouch for the quality of the food at any of them. It may be very good, or very bad, but the food, in my opinion, should not be the focus of your visit. Treat the following as more of cultural experience recommendations:
Step lively. You have one chance to get it right at the window when you shuffle by. People will give you dirty looks if you’re indecisive. Personally, I think Arthur Bryant’s is a bit overrated. The beef (a.k.a. brisket) is cut too thick, cooked too much. The ribs can be skinny and a bit dry. If anything, my favorite thing at Arthur Bryant’s are their beans (sweet and thick) and their cole slaw (simple and refreshing). The “Original” is probably the “right” thing to do for a first-timer, but I prefer the the “Rich & Spicy” or, particularly, the “Sweet Heat”; I find the Original choked with too much paprika, leaving an acrid aftertaste. They’ll slap on a slice or two of white bread (if you need more, you can buy bread by the half loaf here). The fries here are alright – they’re particularly good when they’ve been (inadvertently, but inevitably) “dressed” with barbecue sauce. And I suppose it goes without saying: you’re missing the whole point of the exercise if you visit any location other than the one at 18th and Brooklyn.
2. The Golden Ox
Brace yourself. The Golden Ox has been frozen in 1970’s. This is where J.R. Ewing would have slummed for some hard liquor and a nice strip of steak in his younger days. The Golden Ox has been around for ages (since 1949 to be exact). A holdover from the big livestock era, the restaurant sits on the edge of what was once the Kansas City stockyards in the now-historic district known as the West Bottoms. Although the area is still home to the famous American Royal every October/November, the West Bottoms haven’t been the same since the stockyards were closed in the early nineties. As the name suggests, the area is a flood plain and the restaurant (and surrounding businesses) have been flooded repeatedly over the years. Thankfully, The Golden Ox has weathered the times and remains as a surprisingly well-preserved relic. The dimly-lit cavern features an open kitchen – flames licking an open grill – and custom-made carpet and manufactured lamps that bear the cattle brands. There are baskets of bread stick crackers and Saltines. They serve potatoes in their jackets under an avalanche of sour cream and a big knob of butter. And the steaks here are no-nonsense, sizzling slabs checkered with grill marks. From the age of five to nine, this is where I would choose to have my birthday dinner every year.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Fitzpatrick building has been a part of Kansas City’s downtown since 1911. Formerly a saloon and bordello, the building is now occupied by The Majestic Restaurant. Recently re-opened under new management, the restaurant has refaced its operation, updating the formerly steak-focused menu to offer more a contemporary and varied fare. I have yet to take the new menu for a test drive. Although they’ve closed the cigar salon upstairs (if those walls could talk), the new owners have kept the live entertainment component: live pianist in the main dining room on the weekdays and live jazz in their lower level dining room on the weekends.
4. Savoy Grill
With a giant bar carved out of oak, tiled floors, and converted gas lanterns, the Savoy Grill at the Savoy Hotel claims to be the oldest restuarant in Kansas City (opened in 1903). It’s truly a walk back in time. Harry Truman ate here. And if you call far enough in advance, you can sit in his booth (no. 4), which has also seen the likes of Warren Harding, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Steaks, lobster, and fish – the prices and portions are not modest.
Dubbed a James Beard “American Classic,” this no-nonsense restaurant serves family-style fried chicken and all the fixin’s. Like their slogan, “We choke our own chickens,” the food will have you laughing all the way home. Expect the wait to be long, the portions to be large, and the food to be soulful. Many will swear it’s the best fried chicken in the world.
Neon. Juke boxes. Saddle shoes. Chrome. Greased hair. Burgers, milkshakes, and soady pop. If you want a throwback diner experience, you really can’t get a more campy one than ordering a triple Winstead burger, a side of “Fifty-Fifty” (1/2 onion rings, 1/2 fries), and a Classic Limeade at Winstead’s. At their best, the ultra-thin patties here are juicy with crisped lacy edges that spill out from between two small fluffy buns and thick slices of of white onions.
- Smokers -
Barbecue is as well a traversed topic in Kansas City as Buffalo wings are in upstate New York, gumbo and po’ boys are in New Orleans, and posole is in the Southwest. Barbecue to some Kansas Citians (and many non-Kansas Citians) is religion. Gasp all you want, but this native Kansas Citian prefers Carolina ‘cue. I like the thinner, vinegary sauces. I also prefer smoked and pulled pork. Kansas City leans heavy on the beef, heavy on the sauce, and heavy on the sweet. That being said, there is some very good Kansas City-style barbecue to be had in this city. Here are my favorites:
Located in a gas station, Oklahoma Joe’s grew out of a multi-award-winning competition barbecue team called “Slaughterhouse Five” Now one of the city’s (and nation’s) most respected barbecue restaurants, Oklahoma Joe’s is my favorite place for smoked meat. I like their pulled pork, which you can have in a variety of sandwich forms. I like it “Carolina Style” – piled with spicy slaw and what they call “Bubba’s Sauce.” In no way is it traditional Carolina barbecue, but it’s delicious. So are the ribs here, which are tender, flavorful, and pull cleanly off the bone. The chicken – sold by the half or by the whole – is stunningly good. In fact, it may be the best thing on the menu. It’s so moist and tender, you’d almost swear it was cooked sous vides. And the highly-praised fries here should not be missed.
Barbecue restaurants have never been known for ambiance. LC’s certainly isn’t. But the burnt ends – the crispy trimmings from smoked brisket – at this little ramshackle structure off of Blue Parkway are worth a detour. I rarely get anything else here. Just the burnt ends, please. (The smoker is inside the restaurant, so be prepared to be smoked along with your food.)
3. Wabash BBQ
Baby back ribs. Period. The beans aren’t too shabby either. There’s a fair amount of fried food naval-gazing here.
- Noshers -
There’s more to eating than dining in restaurants. There is some decent snacking to be had in Kansas City. Here are my favorites:
Celebrating 50 years, the Boilier family’s Swiss confectionary has become a beloved fixture in Kansas City. Started by Andre Boilier, a Master Konditor-Confiseur from Basel, the business has stayed within the family and has maintained consistently high standards. Although they have cases full of chocolates and chocolate bon bons, their best creations, in my opinion, are their buttercream pastries. My favorites include the Japonais, Rum Ball, Mocca Roulade, and the 7-layer Dobosh Torte. Although the sweets are why I visit Andre’s, on weekdays, they also serve simple but hearty Swiss (that would be Franco-Austro-Italian) classics in their dining room (lunch only), like meatloaf with “spatzli” and creamed broccoli, or ham and cheese croissants with roasted tomatoes and zucchini casserole. I haven’t eaten in the dining room in over a decade, so I have no opinion of the food there whatsoever.
The first time I had a Christopher Elbow’s chocolates, he was selling them out of a case at the back of a high-end furniture store in downtown Kansas City. Formerly the pastry chef at The American Restaurant (see Blue Bloods above), this break-away chocolatier caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey with his high-end chocolate bon bons and the rest is history. Now, he has is own chocolate store at 18th and McGee as well as an outpost in San Francisco. In the years since, he’s branched out to include hot chocolates, pates des fruits, candy bars, and even ice creams (seasonal) in his eclectic repertoire of sweets. My favorite chocolates here are the “Venezuelan Spice,” “Rosemary Caramel,” “Salted Caramel,” and his red wine caramels (sometimes Pinot Noir, sometimes Cabernet) chocolates He also makes a fun one filled with macadamia nut praline pocketed with pop rocks. If you visit after 5 p.m. on the first Friday of the month, all of his chocolate candies are on sale for $1 apiece.
God bless you Fred Spompinato. His artisanal bakery makes phenomenal bread. It’s not just phenomenal for Kansas City. It’s just plain phenomenal. There’s usually about a dozen or so different types of bread, my favorite of which are the Orchard, the Grain Travel, and the Polenta. Because Spompinato wants to maintain a high level of quality control, he does not, unfortunately, produce enough bread to provide to restaurants. A few restaurants in town are able to get a number of loaves from him; they are the rare exception [to my knowledge, only Blue Bird Bistro, which is just around the corner from the bakery, and The American Restaurant (see "Blue Bloods" above) serve Fervere bread]. Fervere is only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and they close when they sell out (often before noon, despite opening at 11 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays). I would highly recommend calling ahead to reserve your loaves.
In May, 2010, Christopher Elbow (see 1 above) opened up this tiny little ice cream shop. He uses local Shatto Dairy cream and other fresh ingredients to make wonderfully creative and flavorful ice creams. Among my favorites are his chocolates, strawberry-balsamic, goat cheese and honey, and créme fraîche.
- Ethnic -
If you know where to look, Kansas City offers a surprisingly diverse palette of ethnic dining. There are dozens of places I have yet to try, but here are a few of my favorites:
1. Bo Ling’s
If you come from a larger city, or one that has a vibrant Chinese community, walk, don’t run to Bo Ling’s (or, really, don’t bother at all). But if you can’t experience Cantonese dim sum on a regular basis, you might be interested in dropping by their location just off of the Country Club Plaza on the weekend. n4 Replete with roving carts full of steamers full of dumplings and other traditional small plates, Bo Ling’s does a decent job reproducing authentic Cantonese cuisine. Things you shouldn’t miss include their pan-fried tsong fun, tripe (both hot and cold preparations), fluffy char sui bao, chicken feet, fried taro croquettes, custard-filled buns, and the warm bowls of home-made tofu flower immersed in warm, candied ginger broth.
It’s reassuringly authentic when you can watch your tortillas being pressed and griddled right in front of you. Here, they have about a dozen taco choices, including lengua, longaniza, cabeza, carnitas, and rajas. The pastor here is roasted on a vertical, rotating spit (think gyro spit) crowned with a shaved pineapple. They slice some of the warm, softened pineapple along with the pork and mince the two together. In addition to tacos, they also offer gorditas, tortas, burritos, and flautas.
3. Jen Jen’s
Focusing on Cantonese cuisine, this simple eatery excels at home-style dishes. Whether in a stew or stuffed with mince meat, their tofu is usually very good. They also make fantastic dishes with preserved fish, including a simple fried rice dish flecked with the pungent bits of salted fish. If you go late at night, you’ll find their congee menu brimming with delicious condiments, including seafood, pork, mushrooms, and preserved egg.
4. Lucky Wok
Lucky Wok does a particularly nice job with their hot pot stews (especially the ones involving salted preserved fish) and soups. The one specialty that I always order (I call to order this a couple of days in advance) is their taro duck. The bird is completely deboned, stuffed with mashed taro mixed with finely ground pork, and roasted until the skin goes crispy and the filling becomes a comforting layer of warm fluff infused with pork and duck fat. [Update 07/2010: After a couple of disappointing experiences at Lucky Wok, unfortunately, I can no longer recommend their taro duck. Their hot pot stews, however, remain their forté.]
Get the five taco plate here. The last time I was there, it was still $7. You can choose from nearly a dozen different fillings. If they ask, you want them served “Mexican” style – with cilantro, onion, and lime (the “American” style comes with cheese, lettuce, and tomato). They also have gorditas stuffed with any filling you like. And you can wash it all down with tall glass of chilled horchata.
- Locavore -
There’s a burgeoning locavore culture in Kansas City to which quite a few restaurants have subscribed. Many locally owned restaurants adhere to the sustainable ethos, but a few in particular have made it their raison d’etre. While their mission and dedication is admirable, I’ve found that these (two or three) restaurants in Kansas City lack imagination and the skills to produce anything worthy of acclaim. Each of them is decent for what it is, but none of them stand out enough for me to name them here.
- Oenophiles -
To my knowledge, Kansas City was once home to two Wine Spectator Grand Award-recipients. Today, both of those restaurants still boast our city’s deepest and widest cellars. While western Missouri isn’t exactly Napa, we do have access to some good wine. Here are three restaurants and two wine/liquor stores for the wine connoisseurs among you.
1. The American Restaurant
The wine selection here is probably wider than it is deep, though it delves quite deep into domestic Pinot Noirs and California Cabernet Sauvignons, and pauses at some length on the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Wine director (and general manager) Jamie Jamison has peppered his list with some eclectic selections as well.
2. Cellar Rat
What I like about the Cellar Rat is that it’s accessible to drinkers of all levels. Owner Ryan Sciara and his staff are very good at matching price with preference; he’s got a suggestion for all budgets and occasions. Sciara, who used to be wine director at 40 Sardines, is also very good about researching and finding uncommon labels; he’s helped me track down a number of wines that I’ve noted from far-flung meals. Recently, Cellar Rat has obtained a license that allows them to serve alcohol in the store: you buy the bottle, pay $5 corkage, and they’ll pour it for you right there in the store.
Undoubtedly, JJ’s has one of the most comprehensive and weighty inventories of Bordeaux and Napa wines in the area. I haven’t eaten at this former Wine Spectator Grand Award-winner since Executive Chef Linda Duerr left (see Bourgeoisie above), so I don’t know how the food is holding up these days. But their wine list is as impressive as ever, not the least of which are their friendly mark-ups.
4. Red X
It’s not pretty, but Red X – one of the last, true general stores in our area – has got a shockingly wide selection of wine at incredible prices. It’s where I go to find a good deal on premium labels.
Though Starker’s has recently trimmed its wine budget, this former Wine Spectator Grand Award-winner (it held the title from 1995 to 2005) has still got an impressive reserve that was built up by former owner Cliff Bath (the restaurant’s original name was “Starker’s Reserve”). With around 12,000 bottles from the New and Old Worlds, there’s no doubt that you’ll find something that you’ll like.
- Whistlers -
I’m not a drinker. But I know quite a few eyebrow-knitting cocktailians who take their drink seriously. They like to wash up at the following bars and fountains.
After being closed for a the better part of a year, Manifesto reopened. I can’t tell you where it is. I can’t tell you how to make a reservation. Manifesto is Kansas City’s very own modern-day “speakeasy.” And indeed, it plays its part well, tucked away in an old cellar space, the bar tenders are dressed in Prohibition gear – vests, pocket chains, and the occasional beard; you’ll feel well to dig out your bowler hat. As gimmicky as this might seem, you’ll appreciate the low-key atmosphere and guaranteed seating. More importantly, the drinks here are undoubtedly some of the most well-crafted (and stiff) ones in town. Owner Ryan Maybee and his staff of well-trained tenders – including Beau Williams and Arturo Vera-Felicie, the recent winner of the 2009 Great Kansas City Bartending Competition – are mixing and shaking modern classics and creatively spun takes-off of old classics. Partial to the whiskey family of products, I like the “Engert Avenue” (orange-star anise-infused rye whiskey, sherry, and Peychaud bitters) and “Smokin’ Choke” (applewood-smoked Jim Beam, Cynar, maple syrup, and citrus zest). They make a fantastic Sazerac too. If you like the fruitier drinks, you might do well with a Girl from Cadiz (gin, sherry, mint, lemon, and juniper berries) or the Napoleonita (cassis, pineapple, and Chartreuse).
2. R Bar
On a weekend night, you might have to wedge and thread your way through a thick throng to get to the bar. Sean Moriarty oversees this madness at R Bar (see also Yuppies above). He and his occasional tender, Arturo Vera-Felicie (borrowed from Manifesto, see above) are doing what most attention-getting mixologists are doing these days: updated classics. You can get here a Moscow Mule – the drink that jump-started vodka-drinking in the U.S. (for an excellent and well-researched history of the Smirnov (now, d/b/a “Smirnoff) empire, read Linda Himelstein’s “The King of Vodka“) – in a copper mug. Here, you can also see the sequel to the Corpse Reviver – “Corpse Reviver No. 2″ – which stars Plymouth, Lillet, and Cointreau, with a supporting cast of lemon and absinthe. If you’d rather have something a bit more charming, consider the “Elderflower Spritzer,” a fragrant and refreshing mix of St. Germain and ginger ale punctuated with crisp pinot grigio.
n1: The Beatles version of “Kansas City” is played at Kaufman Stadium after each Royals win. Harrison’s version is played after each loss. These days, Harrison’s getting a lot more air time at the stadium.
n2: On the finer end of dining, our city boasts three James Beard Award-winning chefs. Debbie Gold and Michael Smith co-won Best Chef Midwest in 1999 when they cooked together at The American Restaurant. Celina Tio, Gold’s and Smith’s successor at The American Restaurant, repeated the win in 2007 (Tio left The American Restaurant in the middle of 2008. She opened Julian in Brookside in October of 2009.) Colby Garrelts, who has been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest for the past three years, was named one of Food + Wine magazine’s “10 Best New Chefs” in 2005. His tiny 40-seater, bluestem, has received a thunderclap of approval from critics and media across the country.
n3: Wet-aged steaks are not bad, per se. Meat does benefit from the tenderizing effects of aging, whether it be in a vacuum-sealed bag or in a temperature-controlled cooler. And a wet-aged steak can have good flavor (although some dry-aged steaks have a tell-tale sourness that I find extremely off-putting). But because there’s essentially no loss in volume (i.e. the steak is not shrinking due to loss in liquid content), wet-aged meat shouldn’t be priced like a comparably sized dry-aged piece of meat.
n4: Dim sum is only available on Saturday and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. While I think Bo Ling’s is great, its ranking as #2 on the “Top 100 Chinese Restaurants” list is somewhat shocking.