I’ve not always been the most fervent backer of our neighboring big city to the west. Kansas City comes off sometimes as little more than a confusing tangle of highways and strip malls – it’s pretty unsexy (as I post this police are trying to corral cattle on I-70 in KC…just saying). St. Louis has always felt more like home; Cardinals, Soulard and my first foray into big-city dining after graduating from college. For me, it’s always had more appeal.
Most of this is not Kansas City’s fault. I spend far more time in KC but because we’re virtually always staying with the in-laws and that means dining in. We eat well for sure, but the result is a near-total ignorance of the dining scene. Bluestem? Been twice over the years, and dig it just fine. But after that, I’ve had takeout pizza, middling Mexican and some pretty average bbq (Smokehouse BBQ…blech). That’s no way to explore a city’s culinary offerings.
We spent a few days there recently and made the most of it (and the free babysitter). Here’s what I found.
1414 NW 7 Hwy
Blue Springs, MO 64014
I’ll cop to finding this place via Yelp, which comes in handy when you’re already on the road and want Mexican food that doesn’t involve foil packets of sauce. Real Jalisco was highly-rated and allegedly authentic, whatever that’s worth. It’s in a strip mall not far from I-70 near Blue Springs, and that’s worth plenty. Anyway, they came through on all counts.
First, if you put a zucchini flower quesadilla on the menu, I’m gonna order the damn thing, sans hesitation. Best thing was it was delicious – we’ll be recreating it shortly via our three apparently flower-only zucchini plants in the garden. Then, Pollo Tapatio, a smoky, tender grilled chicken breast. Mariposa Jalisco was a perfectly-grilled skirt steak with bracing acidity, roasted tomatoes and Oaxaca cheese and soupy beans. A stunning winner. I ordered Chiles en Ogada, because like that quesadilla, if you put roasted, steak-stuffed poblanos on the menu, I’m going to order the thing. Poblanos, steak, walnut cream sauce, dried cranberries and cooked apple. So different, so wonderful.
522 Campbell St
Kansas City, MO 64106
Phone: (816) 472-4888
Vietnam Cafe is a local favorite, a hit among KC Yelpers and located in Columbus Park, a part of Kansas City just across I-70 from downtown. It’s a lot like The Hill in St. Louis, but several decades of decline have shuttered most of the Italian shops and more recent immigrants – mainly Vietnamese – have moved into the vacuum. The result is shops selling phone cards, lots of signs in Vietnamese and incongruous juxtapositions like Vietnam Cafe a block from “Holy Rosary Credit Union.” It’s awesome.
The convention wisdom on Vietnam Cafe is to start with the pho, and so I found myself a few weeks ago in the doorway of a loud, bustling and sweltering restaurant. The staff, seeing I would be dining alone, quickly whisked me to a seat at a long bar facing out through the windows and onto the street. I dutifully ordered the regular pho and took in the scenery. Faded Vietnamese movie posters stared back from the all-purpose shop across the street. Families trudged up the sidewalk to take a place in the growing line behind me. Rough-looking Asian guys cleared a vacant lot of broken concrete.
Soon a plate of bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime arrived, followed in short order by the most enormous bowl of pho I’ve ever seen. It was steaming hot and richly scented with star anise. I dropped the basil in the broth and squeezed a lime over the top – all the seasoning it needed. With pho, the broth is king. Not the meat, not the noodles, not anything but the broth. It’s a laborious process to make it right, simmering off-cuts of beef and bone and star anise and black pepper, among other things, but the resulting liquid makes for lively eating. The pho at Vietnam Cafe may be the best I’ve had. Beefy but light, with a little surprise of sweetness on the finish – a pleasant surprise. Peppery, tangy and perhaps perfect. I can’t wait to go back.
The Local Pig
2618 Guinotte Ave.
Kansas City, MO 64120
Bouncing around the Internet late one morning, stomach rumbling and no idea where to go for lunch, I happened upon a place called “The Local Pig.” Initially a locally-sourced butcher shop and charcuterie-producer, they opened a sandwich truck out back in the spring. Banh mis are on the menu, so my decision was as good as made.
Local Pig is located down in the Kansas City river bottoms, just half a block from some very busy train tracks. You drive past run down shops and a place selling (or fixing) giant hotel air conditioner units. It’s not particularly scenic, but one tends to find good food in these environs.
“Pigwich” is their food truck, which specializes in sandwiches and leverages gamely off the skilled meat work going on in the building behind it. The day I showed up their menu board boasted a cheesesteak, double cheeseburger, falafel and – what I’d really come for – the banh mi. A chalkboard to one side also tempted with a “BBQLT,” barbeque’s take on the classic BLT. I decided on the only rational course of action – I ordered them both.
The BBQLT (pictured above) made me glad I hadn’t decided upon one or the other. Tender, smoky pulled pork had been quickly fried – a la carnitas – to a porky, baconesque crunch. Arugula and a quality bun also stood out. A winner worth the 20 minute drive from north KC alone. But there was more…
Hooah, I was not prepared for Thai meatball action on my banh mi. But damn these guys know what they’re doing. Crusty bread, pork meatballs, pickled veggies and chili mayo. Badass, my friends. Bad. Ass.
To enter the butcher shop itself you just walk around the corner of the food truck seating area and pass beneath the handsome, handcrafted sign. It is simple, rustic, elegant. Inside you’ll find a long display case of whatever butchered and cured goodies they have on hand that day. I would eventually come away with lamb pate, Thai coconut headcheese, pork belly, bacon, rillettes, porcini aioli, guanciale, Thai sausage, chorizos verde and rojo, chicken liver mousse, habanero pickle, Merguez-stuffed dates, mortadella, tamales, cornichons and…whew, I think that’s it. Oh yeah, breakfast “pot pies” stuffed with scrambled eggs and sausage gravy (!). I bought a shirt that I’m rather a fan of too. So yes, get yerself down to the railyards and hit The Local Pig. Just remember to bring a big cooler. Pro tip: Call ahead to see what they’re getting in that day and when it’ll be ready. One morning they were breaking down whole hogs that’d just come in (below). Pork belly, chops, etc. wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon. Fyi.
106 West Main Street
Smithville, MO 64089
Jonathan Justus has done something very interesting and ambitious with his small, ambitious eatery in tiny Smithville, Missouri. His hometown may be just 20 minutes north of Gladstone, but it feels much further, like surely this Big Deal restaurant can’t be here. But it is, right across from a gun repair shop in a fading downtown center so reminiscent of small town Missouri (see Buffalo, Richmond, etc.). Step inside though and you may as well have just stepped off the sidewalk in New York City’s Murray Hill neighborhood. It has class, but it still comes across as comfortable, friendly.
Mrs. SMEs and I couldn’t make up our minds; everything on the menu calls out with playful, seasonal takes on what are (largely) classic American dishes. Pot pie, short ribs, rabbit. Given our dilemma, we decided to share an array of smaller dishes and just one entree.
First out was a striped bass ceviche – playfully accompanied by a pistachio emulsion, soybean tapenade and pickled asparagus. After that came chicken livers the equal of absolutely anything I had last year in France (and believe me, I tried more than my share). Tender and gently barbequed rather than fried, they had a lightness to them that you just don’t come across in organ meats often. Delicious. Then came the “Farmer’s Platter,” a generous charcuterie plate (pictured above) with coppa, lamb’s tongue, pickled veggies and, creeping the lady out a little bit, a marrow bone with spoon. This was well done and enjoyable, but not quite the highlight.
Bacon-wrapped rabbit mousseline (pictured above, and poorly) brought things to a close and was fittingly impressive. Pistachio-studded and perfectly poached, the rabbit was exquisite in texture and taste, perhaps even too refined for our now largely sated appetites. It was all velvet and subtlety and we probably needed something with a little more punch to it. But that’s hardly the kitchen’s fault.
In all, it was a meal worthy of the buzz Chef Justus and his crew have garnered over the years. Food that is executed at a high level without being precious and a staff that is professional and competent without a sniff of stuffiness. We’ll be back…if only to order that fried chicken, ribeye, risotto and so on that had proved so difficult to turn down the first time.
Part II of this post, focused on some recent dining (and drinking) exploits in St. Louis, to follow. Perhaps soon, perhaps not. Who knows?