travel: kansas city… (2012)

Two years ago, I offered my opinion on eating in Kansas City.  It’s time I update that post. But this time, I’m not just going to throw you a list of my favorite places to eat. This time, I’m going slightly deeper than that. Recently, Saveur Magazine’s editor in chief, James Oseland, put Kansas City […]


Two years ago, I offered my opinion on eating in Kansas City.  It’s time I update that post.

But this time, I’m not just going to throw you a list of my favorite places to eat. This time, I’m going slightly deeper than that.

Recently, Saveur Magazine’s editor in chief, James Oseland, put Kansas City on the horizon of America’s culinary landscape.

As a native and resident, I reserve celebration, but hope for its arrival. Oseland’s portension is no fait accompli.

Yes, we have come quite a ways, here in the heartland of America. Never mind the eighties or nineties, not even a decade ago, Kansas City’s food scene was fairly desolate.

And now, it’s burgeoning.

Yet, despite its recent growth, if I am to take an honest look at what has changed, I’m not sure that many of my fellow Kansas Citians would want to know my conclusions.

But, I care. So, at the risk being branded an elitist, a self-styled prophet without honor, I’ll tell you what I really think.  This is not the first time I’ve raised this issue on my blog.  But this time, I do so with heightened scrutiny.

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The American Royal

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Sadly, the dining public here remains relatively myopic, concerned more with hype than quality. And, quite frankly, few in the food and beverage industry here have done much to change that, complacent to feed the complacent. Sure, the middle tier has widened, the competency has increased. We are looking, ever more, like a big city.

But the problem is that we’re not looking like our own city. There is little here that you won’t find elsewhere, done just as well, or better, or without confusion. We are not growing our own culinary identity the way other cities our size, or smaller, have: Portland, Austin, Charleston, New Orleans.  We have not their character nor personality. Few rise to the top.

Why is this?  Is the land between our coasts forever doomed to suburban mediocrity, a field of wallflowers to be overlooked and over-flown?  Have we no stories to tell, no soul to share?  Are we bound by some irrational and puritanical asceticism that makes us resist the pleasures of eating?  Judging by our waistlines, I think not.

I won’t speak for other cities in the Midwest, but I’ll tell you what I think of my city’s culinary scene: it’s fractured, detached from itself. I see very little meaningful dialogue or interaction happening here. Less time seems to be spent on building a community together, and more of it devoted to trying to recreate another’s, each clamoring to be the first to bring us what the world has already offered elsewhere. We deserve better than big city leftovers.  Where’s Team Kansas City?

While many of my readers may think of me as a champion for my hometown, a bridge for its virtues abroad, most who know me in Kansas City would call me its harshest critic.  I would like to think that I’m both for same reason: I want to see Kansas City become a more exciting and diverse place to eat and drink.  After all, it is my most frequent destination.

But, more importantly, it is my home.

After sifting through the noise, only a few among our local foodways really stood out. Their passion and devotion is evident in their product. They chase neither fame nor fortune, but rather quality, or their own voice, at the very least. Fearless and fierce, they each produce something that is unique, something that is both theirs and Kansas City’s, and no one else’s.

Don’t misunderstand me – we have a lot of good chefs, restaurants, and food producers in Kansas City who serve our city well, who make a quality product. But the following roster makes me especially proud to be a Kansas Citian, which is why many listed below are my first stop or mention when visitors arrive from afield.  Should our city ever be your destination, I commend them to you.

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Oklahoma Joe's

The field is wide, your options are many. We are the capital of barbecue, after all. But there is one barbecue restaurant to rule them all: Oklahoma Joe’s. Nowhere else in our city will you find such a fine collection of smoked meats and sides all in one place.  LC’s on Blue Parkway is famous for their burnt ends – and indeed, they are very good, as are their wedge fries, which have a crust-lover’s crust. Not a mile down the road from LC’s, Big T’s has amazing burnt ends as well, plus fat, juicy rib tips. And I probably prefer the coleslaw and baked beans at Arthur Bryant’s to an other’s.  But at Oklahoma Joe’s, you’ll find the most consistent and satisfying barbecue in our city. Their chicken is amazing – it’s so juicy you’d think it was cooked sous vide. Their ribs are a must. And their pulled pork and burnt ends, which I hadn’t tried until recently, are just as good as any in our city, if not better. Ask anyone I know and they’ll tell you that I don’t wait for food. But I’ve waited on line – often for more than an hour at a time – for Oklahoma Joe’s; be prepared. There are two locations. The one inside of a gas station on the corner of 47th Avenue and Mission is iconic. If you’re in Kansas City, go.

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You must go early or go not at all. Fred Spompinato makes the finest bread in Kansas City. But he only bakes three days out of the week (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday). And he closes his little bread shop, Fervere, as soon as he has sold his last loaf, which is often quite early – sometimes, before noon. I rarely eat bread in the U.S., because it’s rarely worth its weight in calories. But the bread at Fervere is worth the early morning rise. He makes about a dozen different loaves.  My two favorite are the “Whole Grain Travel” – dense but soft, nearly all grains and seeds – and the “Orchard” – a hearty, caramelized, almond-shaped loaf with meaty pockets of dried fruit and walnuts.

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Green Dirt Farm "Dirt Lover"

“Sustainable” is not just a word that Sarah Hoffman and Jackie Smith carelessly throw about on those velvety, green bluffs above Weston, Missouri (a forty-minute drive north of the city). It’s a way of living for them and their sheep at Green Dirt Farm. And it means a lot of hard work. But, for their efforts, they have to show the finest lamb meat and sheeps’ milk cheese in our area. If you’re a passerby, you can find their cheeses (I love them all) and lamb products at local stores and farmers’ markets (or order their meat, by the locker, from their website). But, the best way to have them both, and experience the farm, is to attend one of their Farm Table dinners. Tony Glamcevski oversees this series, which draws some of Kansas City’s best chefs out of their kitchens to cook at the farm almost weekly throughout the temperate months. Guests eat communally at one long table in a barn, with a view of the setting sun and the sound of bleeting sheep. It’s truly a farm table.

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Bell and beer.

Passing downtown Kansas City, heading southbound on I-35, look to your right and you’ll see a smokestack rising proud and tall above the rest. This is home to Boulevard Brewing Company, one of Kansas City’s finest companies. Founded in 1989 by John McDonald, Boulevard now distributes its rainbow of bottles – everything from ales to stouts, wheat beers to porters – all over the United States. You won’t have a problem finding their beer, both bottled and on tap, in our city. You can also take a tour of their brewing plant and get a taste of their beers at the home office.  I particularly like their Smokestack Series, especially the Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale and the Sixth Glass Belgian Ale.

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Genessee Royale Bistro

I love restaurants that unpackage childhood for you. They’re not concerned with the fancies, or the trends. They feed you and make you long for a nap. You’ll find many simple luncheonettes and eateries in Kansas City, and my very favorites include the siblings, Happy Gillis (in Columbus Park) and Genessee Royale (in the Stockyards District, f.k.a. West Bottoms), both owned by Todd Schulte and Tracy Zinn, and Kitty’s Café on 31st Street in Midtown.  The first two are akin, although Happy Gillis, which started out as a soup delivery, is slightly more bohemian than Genessee Royale, which, despite being located in a refurbished gas station in our city’s charmless warehouse district, manages to be quite winsome. Both serve the kind of food only a sick or snow day would justify, but better: fluffy Monte Cristos, warm egg and cheese sandwiches on English muffins, velvety tomato soup with thick and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, corned beef and potato hash, blondies, and Mississippi mud pies. Both also serve breakfast.  Kitty’s is crankier, more blunt. You order your pork tenderloin sandwich – two battered (not breaded) and fried cutlets – with or without hot sauce, with or without pickles, and with or without fries, and to go or not to go. That is all. If you don’t take it away, you’ll be eating it at a short counter with a half-dozen people hovering over you. There would be more of them, but they’re standing outside because they can’t fit inside. This place is small, and it’s only open for lunch.

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00 Color Milk 1.1-1

You can pet the calves at Shatto Milk Company, and learn about how Leroy and Barb Shatto’s family-run and owned company produces its dairy products at their farm in Osborn, Missouri (about a 40 minute drive north of the city). You’ll find their dairy in almost ever grocery store in the city. It has a sweet, butterfat content that is richer and fresher than most of what I find in the cartons and bottles nearby (their dairy can go from cow to shelf in little as 12 hours).  I drink it, make ice cream with it, and bake with it.

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Which Came First?

Campo Lindo Farms, Lathrop, Missouri (2009)

Jay and Carol Maddick raise some of the finest looking hens I’ve ever seen at Campo Lindo Farm. Free to roam, their birds are healthy, happy, and delicious, full of flavor that makes stocks stewed with them brim with what the Chinese call xuan (apologies, but English has no such equivalent, and umami isn’t accurate). The demand for them among local chefs is often so high that Campo Lindo chickens are a scarce commodity.  That’s because the Maddicks insist on doing it all themselves – everything from raising the chickens to processing them – to ensure quality.  They also harvest, weigh, and package their eggs, which can be found at local farmers’ market.

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Baby Carrots


We are surrounded by the farmland of America. It is not as lush or forgiving as the region below us, nor the paradise that is California to the West. But our fields are sown with seeds yearly, all the same. Thankfully, a few farmers do so responsibly and sustainably, against the weight of commodity and subsidized giants. Thane Palmberg’s family started selling their vegetables at Kansas City’s City Market in 1932.  And you’ll find him there, still, arriving faithfully every weekend from DeSoto, Kansas with crates of produce stacked in the bed of a grizzly green behemoth that might have driven off the set of *M*A*S*H*.  At other farmer’s markets around town, you’ll find Jim and Deb Crum of Crum’s Heirlooms Farm in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Both Jim and Deb manage full time jobs and still find time to till the land. I don’t know how they do it. I guess passion is a fine substitute for sleep. Their produce is prized, but they’re most famous for their tomatoes, which are annually showcased by Kansas City’s chefs, some of who have been known to devote entire menus to them. Both the Crums’ and Palmberg’s vegetables and fruits can be found on the menus of almost every locally owned restaurant in the city.

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Fine Dining

The American Restaurant

One is an institution, commissioned by Hallmark, designed by Warren Plattner, and ordained by James Beard. It is The American Restaurant, now in its thirty-eighth year, a stately ship of classics with curved brass railings and James Beard Award-winning chef Debbie Gold at its helm.  The other is a youngster by comparison, but no less important to Kansas City’s dining scene. It is bluestem, Colby and Megan Garrelts’s seasonal reminder that the Midwest is just as far or close as you want it to be.* Both are standard bearers for excellence in cooking in Kansas City, continually ranking among their national peers.  They make Kansas Citians demand for better elsewhere.  If you’re in the mood for refinement, start here, at the top.

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Ice Cream

20120104 Glacé Card 1-3

I love ice cream. And, against the tide of plasticky frozen yogurt shops filled with squealing preteens on their mobiles (which threatens to drown Johnson County), swim Christopher Elbow’s glacé (two locations), and Murray’s Ice Cream (in Westport). Both are locally owned and operated and use high quality ingredients (glacé uses local, Shatto dairy – see above), and offer creative and delicious flavors.  Murray’s have more wit, with names like “One Drunk Monk” (Frangelico ice cream with hazelnuts and chocolate flecks) and “3 Nuts in a Tub” (vanilla ice cream with chocolate covered peanuts, walnuts and almonds).  Elbow’s flavors are more self-explanatory: Gorgonzola, pretzel, and goat cheese & fig, for example. Of course, you’ll find your vanillas and chocolates too – Elbow’s chocolate ice cream and sorbet are particularly good (formerly the pastry chef of The American Restaurant, Christopher Elbow is probably more well-known in Kansas City for his chocolates, which are excellent too).

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* Is it fair that I mention bluestem, since I co-authored and photographed the restaurant’s cookbook with the Garreltses? I’ll let you decide.

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18 replies on “travel: kansas city… (2012)”

All VERY worthy above-at the top of their fields, but can’t believe you didn’t mention Michael Smith’s 2 establishments, and also Justus Drugstore-yes it is outside town but I’d heard he’s bringing an outpost into town

Hypothetically, if someone were to come visit you, how many days would it take (realistically) to eat through this list?

Another great post, Bonjwing. Never having been to KC, I can’t personally attest to your recommendations, but I know you well enough to be comfortable with all of them. As for bluestem, I also know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t have done the book if you weren’t convinced of their quality. It absolutely should be mentioned here!

It is difficult for any city nowadays to stand out culinarily. Those that do, tend to have something really unique about them as a destination and have forged an identity over a long period of time. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our country is mired in mediocre (at best) eating, preferring the known (chains) over the unknown. It sounds, though, as if, despite its flaws, KC has more going for it food wise than most comparably sized cities in this country.

@MD Moles: I am guessing the Epicure left absent these restaurants for the same reasons I would. Restaurant Michael Smith lacks the finesse to match restaurants such as The American and bluestem. Extra Virgin, while normally having a select few interesting and well-executed dishes, is inconsistent, lacks follow-through, is at a loss concerning professional service and atmosphere/decor and is probably just a plain tired concept. Justus Drugstore will never be more than mediocre, with a chef whose pedigree can never match his pretense…recently opened Story in Prairie Village is much better than the Drugstore and time will tell if it can improve to a higher level. I do believe that the young Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange is a rustic and simple concept similar to those on the coasts that has room to grow into itself in a city that will constantly be behind on the times. That being said, I have faith that KC can soon grow from a third-rate food town to the second tier.

@Marion Brewer and Matt: Thank you. I hope you make it home soon.

@Doc Lawrence: If that’s a compliment, thank you.

@David: Perhaps four days, a week at most. Depends on how hard you want to push it. Almost half of this list are farmers.

@Docsconz: As always, you provide immense perspective. Thank you.

@Andrew Switzer: Yes, I have had SodaVie. They are a great, local company!

@M.D. Moles: Joel S. has a good assessment.

Got to Fervere today at 1 pm, only about 8 loaves left but plenty of samples. I did take home a Cheese Slipper and Polenta. We ate the Cheese Slipper with some chili tonight, it was great! We will be making French Toast with the Polenta tomorrow morning, I can only imagine how good it will taste.
Thank you for bringing this to my attention……….a place to go for bread.

Bonjwing, New to your blog (behind the times like the rest of KC, I guess). Found it fascinating. Already knew about most of your recommendations, but just jotted down a couple of which I was unaware. What I liked most about your blog was how well-thought-out and well-written it was. So many blogs (especially food blogs) are all pictures and little substance. How refreshing to find a blog that is as much a pleasure to read as it is to look at!

Anybody know an authentic Chinese (preferable BBQ or seafood) in the KCMO environs? In the STL area we enjoy the Royale Chinese BBQ on Olive a few blocks east of the I-170. Thanks. Jim

We are traveling this summer to your town from the Windy City and are looking to experience the best that your town as to offer. Thanks for this post and please let me know if there are a few more you would now add to this list. Thank you.