Dining Out

by Mike Williams

When you’re in a unfamiliar city and don’t know the dining scene, it’s tempting to resort to eating at national chains (or, Ghu forbid, the hotel!). These are the restaurants you know. They’re everywhere. They’re comfortable and safe; they’re predictably consistent. They’re B-O-R-I-N-G!

If you have even a mildly adventurous spirit, you’ll find a wealth of fascinating, one-off dining establishments in Kansas City. In fact, Calvin Trillin, the American journalist, humorist, and food writer, once wrote, “The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City.” Facetious? Maybe…or maybe not. [Note: He also named Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue “the single best restaurant in the world.” You owe it to yourself to see if you agree!].  Kansas City is the home of several James Beard Award winners and nominees, and their restaurants are excellent. In contrast, there are the “hole-in-the-wall” places where you’ll find some really interesting and unique meals that you’ll remember. I want to introduce some of both options that you can find without traveling a long way. Let’s be adventurous, and eat out in Kansas City!

MidAmeriCon II is being held right in the central business district. There are some places nearby–say, within a mile–that might attract you. But let me digress to tell you something you may not know about Kansas City: it’s hilly. No, really. It’s hilly. That fact surprises most first-time visitors. Keep the hills in mind if you set out on foot.

Let’s go about a mile north to the River Market area. Here you’ll find Il Lazzarone, a certified Neapolitan pizzeria. Neapolitan pizza is similar to New York-style, but smaller and made using a different flour. Il Lazzarone offers an assortment of interesting toppings; smoked lardo, crimini mushrooms, pancetta, prosciutto, and more. For an appetizer, try the caprese or the charcuterie plate. Believe it or not, gluten- sensitive people usually do fine here. Be sure to take note of their imported wood-fired oven that runs at 1,000 degrees on the deck. A block away, The Farmhouse is a farm-to-fork restaurant featuring a seasonal menu. Good place for brunch. Their hours vary from day to day, so be sure to check.

From there, go two blocks east to the City Market (where the farmers sell their products every Saturday). Around this rectangle is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to food. However, be aware that some of these won’t run evening hours. You might like Bo Ling’s Chinese. Try their dim sum. Next door is The Blue Nile Café, where you get Ethiopian cuisine. Everything here is good (a touch on the spicy side). Try
the tibbs wat or the doro wat. Your eating “utensil” is injera (a spongy Ethiopian flatbread) instead of knives and forks. (Okay, knives and forks are available if you insist. But how adventurous is that?)

I recommend that you SKIP Winslow’s Barbeque. There are many dozen barbecue places in KC, and most of them are better than Winslow’s. It would be unfortunate if this were the KC barbecue memory you took home.

If you want pizza that’s a little more mainstream, Minsky’s is right there. It’s similar to Pizza Hut.

Let’s go on around the rectangle. As you dodge the produce vendors, you’ll find some really tiny places in here. Hien Vuong is a Vietnamese place that serves a pretty good phở. Tikka House calls itself “Indian,” but it’s more Middle Eastern. Try the lentil soup and the shwarma. Burrito Bros is right there (think Chipotle without the E. coli). Going on, there’s Habashi House. It’s larger than Tikka House and with a similar menu, but I prefer Tikka. Beignet offers some Creole/Cajun food and decorations that are fun. There are sweet beignets and savory ones, gumbo, jambalaya, po’boys, boudin balls… Carollo’s Grocery and Deli is next. You can get a sandwich of just about any Italian meat you can imagine. After that, have some gelato. Wrap up the City Market with Taste of Brazil. Get a taste of authentic Brazilian fast food from São Paulo. Try their caipirhinas.

Across the street from the City Market are two different Oriental Markets–obviously not restaurants, but definitely attractive to the adventurous. How attractive? One has durian, and other has balut. Caveat emptor!

Go another couple of blocks east of the City Market, and you’ll find Le Fou Frog, a French restaurant that mixes traditional with more progressive fare. As is typical with French food, it’s priced a little higher. Their charcuterie plate is stunning. You might see if they have their kangaroo and/or ostrich. Other than that, they have beef and seafood dishes.

If you continue east, you’ll be in the Columbus Park neighborhood. For what is possibly the best fried chicken in Kansas City, visit The North End on Saturday night. This largely Italian place offers weekend dinner specials, and they’ll treat you very well. You might like their outdoor patio. Nearby is the Vietnam Cafe; very authentic Vietnamese food at stunningly low prices. It’s very popular among Vietnamese nationals. The stocks here are unbelievably deep and rich. Try the phở đặc biệt or mì xào bò.

Up the street and around the corner is Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout. Be careful, as their hours are limited and depend on the day. Their menu is limited to breakfast and lunch items. There’s biscuits and gravy, French toast, crab roll sandwiches, pulled pork sandwiches, and more. Next door is the Columbus Park Ramen Shop. I’m not terribly enamoured of the ramen place. It’s tiny (the space used to be a one-car garage), it’s expensive, and it’s new enough that it draws a lot of the hipster crowd. Still, it’s one of the few ramen places in town. Also in Columbus Park is Garozzo’s, to assuage your desire for St Louis-style Italian. Beware of their three-way pasta. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that there’s so much of it! It has a pound of ravioli, a pound of spaghetti, and a pound of mostaccioli…and those are pre-cooked weights.

Across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas–yes, there’s another Kansas City over there–are probably a dozen authentic Mexican places. Each of these is as good as the next; pick one. You won’t find hard-shell tacos or chimichangas here; you won’t find cheddar cheese here; you won’t find upscale glitz and glamor here. What you will find are lots of native Spanish speakers eating the foods they grew up with. Some place names along just one street include Bonito Michoacan, La Nena, Burritos La Chiquita, Panaderia Guatemalteca, El Pueblito, and more. For a little twist, Las Palmas adds Salvadoran and Guatemalan dishes. These are workmen-like places that sell tasty, filling foods at remarkably low prices. You won’t leave hungry from any of them–and they’re only two or three miles from the convention center.

Next, let’s go south on Broadway from Bartle, down the long hill, to Southwest Boulevard.There are lots of interesting places along SW Blvd, but let’s start with a block of the intersection. Cafe Gratitude offers vegan fare. Their menu item names are catchy, but kind of confusing. What am I getting when I order “Warm-Hearted,” or “Dynamic,” or “Sensational”? (Of course, the menu describes the dishes.) I liked their food but, being a carnivore, I left vaguely unsatisfied. Also right there is TownTopic; a tiny and popular place that sells burgers. Lulu’s Thai Noodle Shop is about a block east. It’s not the best Thai place in town, but it has the virtue of being close. Pad Thai noodle is my litmus-test Thai dish. Order it as spicy as you can stand. Boulevard Tavern is only a block away. Their menu attracted me, but I felt the reality didn’t quite live up to expectations. Still, if you’d like some shrimp and grits, or some poutine (both hard to find in KC), or some rabbit enchiladas (is rabbit adventurous enough?), you’ll find them here.

Go SW along the Boulevard and go under the interstate. On the left is La Bodega. This is a fun place for Spanish tapas. I’ve had some linguistic quibbles with their menu descriptions (e.g. when the item’s title says “jamón Ibérico” and the description says Serrano ham, or when the menu says pancetta and they serve you prosciutto, we have a problem), but the food is wonderful. Across the street and a block further on is a cluster of mostly Mexican places. Again, all are good. I want to highlight a couple of non-Mexican places. Empanada Madness is primarily Venezuelan, but tosses in a Colombian, Cuban, and Peruvian dish or two. You cannot go wrong here. The arepas (pick one) are wonderful. I especially like the arepa de chicharrón. The arroz con pollo is good; the El Jibarito is good… Be sure to try their chicha. No, it’s not the fermented corn-based drink of the Amazon; it’s the Venezuelan version of horchata. When you’re there, you might just see one of the Kansas City Royals drop in. Catcher Salvy Perez is Venezuelan. The other place I want to mention specifically is the Tenderloin Grill. Feeling adventurous? Try their pig snoot sandwich. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. They also have tenderloins, chicken, burgers, fish…

Sidebar: There are a few other places of interest in this neighborhood. The Boulevard Brewing Company, one of the Midwest’s top craft brewers, started in KC. You can schedule a tour. Also, there are two artisanal coffee roasters right here: The Roasterie, and Parisi Artisan Coffee. The Roasterie also does tours, but I’m not sure about Parisi.

Before we start wandering somewhat further afield, let’s hit a few more places in and near the CBD. Downtown KC has been undergoing something of a renaissance, powered by the Sprint Center. As you might expect, restaurants are part of the rebirth (and, with this “gentrification” comes higher prices). Within just a block of 14th and Walnut (near the Sprint Center), there are about twenty assorted eateries. Extend your circle, and the number grows.

On to specifics! Cleaver & Cork is a gastropub helmed by Alex Pope, whom I consider to be THE rockstar of the KC foodie scene. Alex is a genius, and he’s never served me anything that I didn’t think was stellar. You won’t be disappointed here. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the braised pork jowl with fried grits and roasted jalapeño. Nara bills itself as a Japanese sushi grill. They also have robata offerings. Try the yakitori, or the yaki udon, or the escolar (cooked or sushi). On the other hand, don’t bother with the Wagyu sliders. For modern German cuisine, there’s Affäre; mostly small plates of a range of things from farm to sea. Specifically German items to try are the bratwurst, jägerschnitzel, and butterspätzle. James Beard Award winner Michael Smith has his eponymous restaurant here. One of the more upscale places in town, Michael Smith features American cuisine informed by his French training. I’ve thought some of the offerings here were superb, and others surprisingly amateurish. By going in the same door, you get to Smith’s other venture, Extra Virgin. Here you’ll find an interesting assortment of tapas.

Duck tongue tacos, anyone? Pig ear salad? Braised goat? Check out The Belfry. It’s helmed by James Beard Award winner, and Iron Chef competitor, Celina Tio. She calls it a “casual neighborhood joint.” You’ll find lots of bar-type food, but with the flair of a high-end chef. Finally, there’s The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. This is another somewhat upscale place owned and operated by James Beard Award nominee Howard Hanna.You’ll find locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients in Howard’s dishes. To get outside the mainstream a bit, there’s bison and rabbit.

For genuine Mexican food enthusiasts, another neighborhood to explore is Armourdale. It’s also across the state line. I heartily recommend Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos for Mexican seafood. Their langoustines are huge, and exquisite; their ceviche is superb; and the shrimp roll sandwich is wonderful. Reyna’s Mexican Bakery is a combination panaderia and restaurant. Very tasty (and inexpensive) burritos, gorditas, and tortas. You choose your filling from seven or eight options that change from day to day. Go for the chile colorado if they have it–spicy but amazing. The nopalitos are very tasty.

Carniceria y Tortilleria San Antonio is a meat market, grocery store, tortilla factory, and restaurant. They make wonderful tortas, and their caldo de res (Mondays and Tuesdays only) will be a revelation. They also sell my favorite chicharrones. Adventurous meats? Beef tongue, hog stomach, or head meat (called barbacoa). El Pollo Rey serves grilled chicken. Period. It’s excellent. Whether you order a whole chicken, a half chicken, or wings (those are your only options), it’ll come with tortillas, rice, salsa, and beans. More places in Armourdale? There’s Ninfa’s Tortillas & Taqueria, Gallo de Oro, Taqueria Las Arenosas, Leslie’s Taqueria, and the California Taco Shop. All authentic Mexican.You also can get good tacos at Bichelmeyer Meats on Saturdays. Be prepared for crowds at this huge butcher shop.

Let’s go to Westport next! About three miles south of the convention center, Westport is a gathering point for food and drink. In addition to lots of bars, there are over 40(!) assorted eateries. Let me pick and choose a few. For Mediterranean, try the Jerusalem Cafe. You’ll have lots of options. You can get baba ghanouj, falafel, a gyro, a shawarma, kifta, stuffed grape leaves… Everything is good. You can even avail yourself of their hookah. If you’d rather have Indian, there’s Korma Sutra. Extending the pun, Korma Sutra says they serve “Sensuous Cuisine of India.”This Punjabi place often is mentioned as one of the best Indian restaurants in the city; and it’s one of the few that serves goat. Recommended.

Of course there’s Mexican in Westport. Cancun Fiesta Fresh serves authentic Mexican street-food style tacos (and the Americanized kind too). Meats are the standards: asada, carnitas, desebrada, lengua, cabeza, chorizo…They also have combo plates, platters, burritos, and assorted Mexican cervezas (beer). You can go to Port Fonda for a more modern take on Mexican. I thought their food was less authentic than they claim it to be (but it IS good), and it’s on the pricey side. For fun, try a mezcal flight.

Sama Zama is a “one-bite grill” (I call it Japanese tapas); Izakaya-style small plates of such things potstickers, spring rolls, and yakitori. This is real Japanese cuisine (and another place to get ramen). I usually go for the yaki udon. Yes, there’s American in Westport as well. Go to Green Room Burgers and Beer for burgers and hand-cut fries. Drinks? How about house-brewed beer? Lastly, for a bit of elegance, you might like ÇaVa. This champagne bar is the brainchild of Rieger chef Howard Hanna. You’ll find sparkling wines, champagnes, pommes frites, baguettes with spreads, a charcuterie board, a cheese plate, moules frites, caviar, oysters, and more. Not a cheap date, but worth it.

Another area to explore is the two or three blocks centered around the intersection of 39th St. and Bell. I call this neighborhood “restaurant corner.” There’s a range of ethnic cuisines to be found here. Po’s Dumpling Bar is authentic Chinese while at the same time not straying too far from what you know. Not surprisingly, dumplings are signature items. Everything is very fresh, with subtle flavors. Try any of the soups or noodle dishes. For a stylistically different–but still authentic–take on Chinese, there’s Blue Koi. The “open kitchen” here setting allows you to watch your food being prepared. Blue Koi serves several kinds of dumplings, wraps, noodle dishes, and rice dishes. Try the wonton soup, Ants on a Tree (a minced pork dish with bean noodles), or Fire Bird (duck or chicken sauteed in chili pepper–yes, it’s spicy). Then, there’s Genghis Khan Mongolian Grill. The concept here is that you go through a buffet line choosing the raw ingredients and sauces you want. Once your bowl is full, you hand it to a man who cooks it up on a huge griddle. All you can eat for one price. Genghis Khan is a popular with fans all over the Midwest.

Enough Chinese. Let’s have some Mediterranean at Aladdin Cafe. Here you’ll find good kabobs, gyros, hummus, falafel… all the usual suspects.” The lentil soup is very good, and the adventurous items might be the halum cheese and the zaatar. You have American options in “restaurant corner” as well. You can get a spicy–seriously hot–burger at KC Smoke Burger. It’s called the “Danger Zone Fire Smoke Burger.” It’s topped with grilled jalapeños and habaneros, a house blend hot sauce and cheese. But not everything is nuclear hot. They have burgers that feature avocado, or are gyro style, or with blue cheese, or Hawaiian flavors, or that use lamb instead of beef. And they have non-burger sandwiches as well: gyros, dogs, Philly cheesesteaks, and more. This is fun place. Check it out.

You want Mississippi delta food? Go to Jazz–A Louisiana Kitchen. They have your étouffée, your gumbo, your jambalaya. Boudin, beignets, and andouille are necessary parts of your meal here. The adventurous will try the crawfish (or as some locals call them, “mud bugs”). Try any of the blackened fish offerings, or a po’boy. I don’t remember whether they have alligator, more’s the pity. A minor quibble for me is that they don’t distinguish between Cajun and Creole cuisines, so I can’t call Jazz truly authentic.

Finally, there’s the James Beard Award-nominated Room 39. Its menu changes daily based on seasonal ingredients. Ergo, you’ll have to try it to see what they’re serving on any given day. Whatever it is, it’ll be good. And, unlike a lot of other restaurants all over this list, Room 39 serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Before I stop, I have to talk about barbecue. KC is renowned for its barbecue, and there are at least 100 barbecue restaurants in the Kansas City area. Most of them are worth a visit. However, to my mind, two of them rise to iconic status, and you should try them. Those two are Arthur Bryant’s, and Gates. Bryant’s heritage reaches back over 100 years to a man named Henry Perry. Perry taught Charlie Bryant, and later, Charlie’s brother, Arthur. (In fact, the restaurant was originally named Charlie Bryant’s. Arthur took over when Charlie died in 1940.) I haven’t been able to learn when Charlie Bryant’s first opened, but Arthur moved it to its current location in 1958. (Believe it or not, I remember the older space! Yes, I’m that old.) Bryant’s sauce is unique. Unlike the standard perception of KC barbecue, Bryant’s sauce is spicy and coarse-textured. Only about two people know the recipe for it. Try the burnt ends, the brisket, or the pork, or the ribs. The fries are cooked in lard; not healthy at all, but very tasty.

Gates is another longtime KC-area barbecue place.The first Gates opened in 1948, but looks back to that same Henry Perry as its progenitor. Their sauce generally is a little sweeter, and the quality of their meat may be a bit higher. You’ll be greeted with a shout of “May I help you?!” as soon as you set foot inside the door.

So, are the best restaurants in the world in Kansas City? Try all these places, and see what you think.