Evidently, the gestation for Midwestern maturity is slow. Two years ago, I took an honest (some might characterize it as critical) look at the eating culture of my hometown of Kansas City. Cautious with praise and focusing mostly on quality, I also used that blog post to acknowledge and recommend a few local restaurants, businesses, artisans, and food producers that I thought were contributing something meaningful to our city’s culinary identity.
Most of what I wrote then still stands today. So, I happily bring forward those same people, places, and products that I recommended in 2012. I continue to support them with my dollars and with my word-of-mouth here. At the same time, Kansas City’s dining culture has shown little progress or change since. Ours is a city that remains largely dependent upon trickle-down trends from elsewhere. Despite the fact that a number of new restaurants and bars have opened in the past two years, I haven’t found much that is worthy of discussion or mention. So, I have relatively few additions to my previous list of recommendations, which, in my humble opinion, remains a comprehensive list of the best of what our city has to offer. What little I have to add this time I do so after first noting a few changes to some of the businesses that I mentioned two years ago:
Boulevard Brewery, once locally owned and operated, is now only locally operated. In January of this year, the brewery was sold to the Belgian beer conglomerate Duvel Moortgart.
Also, last year, Josh Eans and his wife Abbey-Jo bought Happy Gillis Café & Hangout in the Columbus Park neighborhood from Todd Schulte, who still owns Genessee Royale in the West Bottoms (I mentioned both restaurants in my 2012 post, and still recommend them today). The Eanses have tweaked the menu at Happy Gillis, but haven’t changed the restaurant’s charming, mismatched interior, or its simple, comforting breakfast and lunch dishes made with great, local ingredients. I have long-believed that Eans is one of Kansas City’s most talented chefs. He has a keen palate with a good mind for flavor (he’s also a Cicerone, who has been inspired to host a series of beer dinners at Happy Gillis on occasion). More importantly, Eans understands the importance of simplicity and quality.*
Michael Corvino is the new executive chef of The American Restaurant, which marks its 40th anniversary this year. Corvino, who comes to Kansas City from the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas, took over in July of 2013, after James Beard Award-winning chef Debbie Gold left to pursue another project. In his one, short year here, Corvino has given the restaurant a much-needed shot in the arm, injecting a new sense of excitement and renewal into Kansas City’s oldest fine dining venue. I have had the opportunity to work with Corvino on a number of events, including the annual Harvesters Chefs Classic earlier this year, and The American Restaurant’s annual Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner (there are just a few seats available for the upcoming one on September 28), and I find him highly collaborative, shockingly humble, and wonderfully enthusiastic. I look forward to good years of eating ahead at The American Restaurant.
And, just last week, Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Q, perhaps Kansas City’s most-celebrated barbecue restaurant (outside of Arthur Bryant’s, which I believe is largely riding on tattered coattails three decades-old), announced that it will be changing its name to Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Q. The announcement caused quite a stir, especially among some longtime loyalists and marketing pundits, who questioned the decision to abandon a well-branded name. While I appreciate the owners’ desire to identify their restaurant with the great, barbecue capital for which it stands, I have to admit that the change came as a surprise to me. But, like the changes in ownership and leadership with the other Kansas City businesses I’ve mentioned above, I consider Joe’s name change to be merely cosmetic. I am confident that its core mission of producing the best product possible remains, and that consumer trust in the quality and consistency of Joe’s barbecue surpasses its brand recognition. Judging by the queue at the original location on the corner of 47th and Mission, which often wraps around the old gas station in which the restaurant resides, I doubt Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Q will miss a beat.**
The vast majority of those who read this blog are not in Kansas City. Mindful of that fact, and the fact that I receive a large number of inquiries about my hometown each year, I offer the following, in addition to my blog post from two years ago, as an informal guide to my favorite places for eating and drinking in Kansas City. I want to make it clear that neither this blog post nor the previous one to which I refer is complete or definitive. Based on years of eating and drinking around town, it is merely my list of personal commendations.
Because Kansas City’s food and beverage community is small, it is unavoidable that I know – and in some cases, am good friends with, or have worked with – many of the people who appear here. I have made addition disclosures where I feel they are needed.
Colby and Megan Garrelts’s Rye Restaurant, which opened in Leawood, Kansas in late 2012, is an easy addition to my list of recommendations in the comfort category. Although the Garreltses scripted Rye to be a “Midwestern” restaurant, I remain unconvinced about the identity of a “Midwestern” cuisine apart from its roots in more-established regional American cookery (namely, Southern cooking). Regardless, however you categorize the Garreltses’ food at Rye, it is well-made, and unquestionably delicious. The fried chicken and the “smoked picnic pork” (or, what I call the “pull your own pork” shoulder) are personal favorites. And Megan’s pies are phenomenal — the coconut cream pie is tops; the rest – especially the banana cream pie – are not far behind it.***
After a number of disappointing experiences, I avoided Gates Bar-B-Q for years. But, I recently revisited (the original location at 1221 Brooklyn Avenue) on a narrowly tailored mission for burnt ends. And I was surprised by what I found. In an article I wrote for eater.com earlier this year about burnt ends, I described my experience:
“For years, I shied away from Gates because [its] barbecue was way too salty, and not very good. But, this time, [the] burnt ends knocked my socks off. When asked, the young carver behind the station held up a hunk of brisket and showed me the crispy corners that he was cutting off for my order. Using two cleavers, he chopped all of the burnt scraps into bits and piled them on white bread (normally it’s served on a hoagie, you have to request white bread). He asked me if I wanted them sauced. I said yes. He reached for a giant brush in a canister and generously painted the meat, and then shingled more white bread on top.
The best way to describe Gates’ burnt ends is brisket feuilletine. They reminded me of Rodney Scott’s famous pulled pork in South Carolina. Scott separates the crisped skin from the pulled pork meat and then chops the two back together so that every bite is mottled with crystals of crunchy crackling. Gates’ brisket burnt ends are just like that. And it’s marvelous. On this latest visit, the meat was still noticeably salty, saved only by the tanginess of the restaurant’s signature sauce, speckled with celery seed.”
For the burnt ends (and for the burnt ends alone), I add Gates Bar-B-Q to my very short roster of recommended barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. (Maybe the rest of Gates’s menu is just as good as its burnt ends, but I am unable and unwilling to include that in my endorsement here.)
I like to drink what I describe as “Robert Parker coffee” – I want it dark, rich, and velvety; aligned much more with Old World sensibilities than those of the newer world in which I live. The only local roaster that offers that kind of a coffee experience is Broadway Café and Roasting Company, which has been so successful in its 20-plus years in Westport that the Starbucks next door to it closed. But, the third wave of coffee culture has arrived in Kansas City, bringing with it a caffeinated surf of mustaches and tattoos with a taste for something lighter, fruitier, and more acidic. While that’s not the type of coffee I like to drink, the beans and brews produced by these newcomers are of very good quality. I applaud and acknowledge them for it here. Gregory Kolsto’s Oddly Correct has quickly cornered the local, third wave coffee movement with its beans, which are roasted next door to its coffee shop on Main Street in Midtown (Kolsto also does letterpress at the shop; you’ll see his art on Oddly Correct’s coffee bags). You’ll also find Oddly Correct’s beans being used in a number of restaurants, including Port Fonda (see below under “Hipster Mexican”), as well as other great coffee shops in Kansas City, including Lindsay Laricks’s Little Freshie on the city’s near-west side (Little Freshie is a “hand-crafted soda fountain and espresso bar” that also serves baked goods and shaved ice with house-made syrups) and Cory Stipp’s Quay Coffee in the River Market. In addition to always pulling Oddly Correct espresso, Quay Coffee also rotates through other roasters for its pour-over and Kyoto drip coffees (for example, Quay is currently offering Kickapoo out of Wisconsin, and Sump out of St. Louis). Likewise, Nathan and Leia Anderson’s Second Best Coffee in Waldo (it has the hilarious slogan “Midwestern modesty”), which focuses on espresso, also rotates through a variety of roasters, including beans from PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. out of Topeka, Kansas (which just opened its first Kansas City coffee shop when it took over the old Coffee Girls space in the Crossroads District). If you are looking for good coffee, I recommend that you start your Kansas City search at one of these coffee shops.****
It all started in May of 2011 with a shiny Airstream parked downtown on Friday and Saturday nights. Blasting eighties hip-hop and serving up a short menu of delicious Mexican caricatures to a steady stream of walk-ups, Patrick Ryan quickly developed a cult following, making the corner of 20th and Main Streets the happening spot for late-night meet-ups that summer. By that August, “El Comedor” – the six-seat table inside the trailer, which Ryan seated twice each night for a special four-course dinner showcasing a giant, roast pork butt – was booked solid through the fall (I recall eating at El Comedor in that un-air-conditioned trailer on the hottest day that summer. It had peaked at 115-degrees earlier in the day. Near midnight, the fans inside the trailer were circulating air that was still well-above 100-degrees). In November, the trailer was put into storage for winter. It has yet to make a reappearance. That’s because in that short, hot summer, Ryan had generated enough excitement, momentum, and support to open Port Fonda as a brick and mortar space in Westport the following June. Now, two years later, Port Fonda still remains one of the most exciting restaurant openings for Kansas City in recent memory. Of it, I wrote a few months after it opened: “It offers everything a modern, community-conscious restaurant should: the interior design, the server outfits…, and many of the ingredients are locally sourced. It has become a gathering place for a wide spectrum of Kansas Citians; mostly hipsters, but also yuppies, athletes (Chiefs and Sporting Kansas City players are regularly spotted at the restaurant), and business folk too. With a great playlist…, a hopping bar scene, and a fairly solid menu with fairly reasonable prices, Port Fonda has made eating out fun for Kansas City diners, mobilizing them on those Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, when our city’s restaurants are either closed, or stall for business. For Kansas City, this is important.” Although I was thrilled by Port Fonda’s opening, I hesitated in making too many judgments about the food at first. The quality was inconsistent. But, to his credit, Ryan kept an open dialogue with me about his cooking, and over time, I came to trust his desire for honest feedback. More and more, I found myself recommending Port Fonda to friends and strangers alike. After watching Port Fonda feel its way through its first few months, and then improve gradually over the past two years, I now consider the restaurant less of a scene (although it remains very much a scene) and more of a place I like to eat. And it has definitely contributed to improving the dining culture of Kansas City. As such, I now recommend Port Fonda to you. Look elsewhere for authenticity. Come here for a fun time with friends, some delicious food (the Chimichanga del Dia is invariably fantastic; the salads are also consistently terrific), and a solid list of cocktails. Can we get the fried oyster tacos back on the menu, please?
Wine & Spirits
Due to a deficiency in alcohol dehydrogenase (the enzyme that helps humans metabolize alcohol), I’m not a big drinker. (If you ask my doctor, he would tell you that I shouldn’t drink at all.) So I have little business making recommendations in this department. That said, there are two new places in Kansas City that I think deserve a mention. Ryan Sciara has opened Underdog Wine Co., a wine shop in the Crestwood strip in Brookside. Despite my inability to drink what he sells, I have known Sciara for years, and happily vouch for his knowledge about wine and spirits, and especially his ability to guide a rube like me through his tiny, but well-stocked store. Beau Williams left Ryan Maybee’s popular speakeasy concept Manifesto and opened Julep with his wife Keely in Westport. Although Julep is billed as a whiskey bar (there are even whiskey lockers for the serious coinnoisseurs), Williams offers a full menu of cocktails, which include a few versions of the bar’s namesake. And there is a small menu of food, which is written and developed by John Brogran, the chef de cuisine at Rye (see above under “Comfort”).*****
* In addition to having worked for Guenter Seeger and co-founding Blanc Burgers + Bottles in Kansas City, Eans was most-recently sous chef at The American Restaurant. Disclosure: I have worked with Eans in a professional context, including being hired to photograph for the Happy Gillis Café & Hangout website.
** The owners of Oklahoma Joe’s (or Joe’s Kansas City), Jeff and Joy Stehny, are longtime Kansas City residents. They are acquaintances of mine.
*** The Garreltses are not only longtime friends of mine, but we have worked together professionally. I wrote and photographed their cookbook, “Bluestem, The Cookbook,” and have photographed for both of their restaurants, as well as their upcoming cookbook, “Made in America” (expectant April, 2015; Andrews McMeel Publishing).
**** If you, like me, enjoy getting work done at coffee shops, you’ll be happy to know that Oddly Correct, Quay, Second Best, and PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. all offer wifi. Broadway Café does not. Also, I note that both Oddly Correct and Second Best Coffee close unusually early. Lastly, I should mention Messenger Coffee, which is a coffee roaster based in Shawnee, Kansas. Messenger Coffee can be found at its partner coffee shop Black Dog in Lenexa, and, according to Recommended Daily, at Homer’s in Overland Park, Alchemy in Lawrence, and the Filling Stations (that’s the name of a local chain of coffee shops) around Kansas City. I have never had Messenger’s coffee, nor have I visited Black Dog, Homer’s, or Alchemy, so I did not include them in my recommendation above.
***** Disclosure: Sciara has hired me to photograph his wine store for its website and press. And, for what it’s worth, Ryan Maybee and I have known each other since middle school; we graduated high school in the same class. I also note that, new to Westport is ça va, a Champagne bar that is a partnership among Howard Hanna (chef of The Rieger Grill & Exchange, he oversees the food menu at ça va), Jim Coley (wine director at Gomer’s Midtown, he oversees the wine list at ça va), and Justin Norcross (he manages the bar). I have not visited at ça va yet, so I do not include it in my recommendation above.
Photos: Andrew Iwersen at the pour-over station at Quay Coffee in the River Market District; Henry Eans reaching at the wall of “abandoned art” at Happy Gillis Café & Hangout in Columbus Park; Ryan and Jenny Sciara at Underdog Wine Co. in Brookside; fried chicken and fixings at Rye Restaurant in the Mission Farms development in Leawood; the burnt ends at Gates Bar-B-Q’s original location on Brooklyn Avenue; the Slayer at Second Best Coffee in Waldo; Patrick Ryan inside the Port Fonda Airstream trailer; and the banquet at Julep in Westport.
6 replies on “travel: kansas city… (2014)”
Great Writing Style, Pat!!! Would love for you to try Revo Cup Coffee Shop at College & Quivara which also roasts its own beans.
I can’t help but think you left out Novel on purpose
I’m glad to hear you dig Broadway Cafe – We have been open 22 years today!
Absolutely agree on Joe’s, Rye and I’m lucky enough to do lunch there twice a week. On Port Fonda I loved it at first but you can only do so much with Chicarones! Have you tried Anton’s on Main? When in London try The Lockhart & 1235 Donuts!
Reading your postings make me miss my trips up from Tulsa. I want to send you some Prairie so I guess I will send it to you via bluestem. Finally something good is coming out of Oklahoma.
Might be time for an update :-) I want to know about some of your new favorites.