Kansas City Travels: BBQ, Brunch and More

Do you ever get those last minute airfare deals from United and see an awesome RT flight to Cleveland for $183 and think to yourself, “wow, what a great deal, I am all over this!” and start packing your bags for an impromptu weekend trip to Ohio? Yeah, that never happens, because the reason why these flights are so cheap is because no one really goes to these cities by choice. For an unfortunate consulting gig or a wedding, yes, but on your own precious time, probably not.

But this Presidents’ Day weekend, we actually decided to take advantage of one of these United flight deals. To Kansas City of all places. Which may sound even worse than Cleveland to some. But hear me out on why Kansas City wasn’t a totally crazy idea.

No. 1: Kansas City was voted by Travel+Leisure as the #10 best American city for hipsters. There are a lot of cities in America – breaking the top 10 is pretty good. And it came out ahead of Seattle and Chicago, which are two cities I’ve been to with decent hipster scenes.

No. 2: Kansas City barbecue. Anthony Bourdain ranked Kansas City BBQ restaurant Oklahoma Joe’s as one of the 13 places in the world to eat before you die. Anthony Bourdain is judgmental and mean and has eaten everywhere, so it really means something when he calls this the “best BBQ in the world”.

No. 3: Kansas City weather forecast: 60 degrees. 60 degree weather doesn’t sound all that special. Why do 60 when you can do 90 in somewhere awesome like Miami or Cancun? But when you’ve been stuck in a city that’s been hit continuously with snowstorms and temperatures in the low teens, 60 degrees sounds fantastic.

So with these three compelling reasons, off to Kansas City I went, and now I’m here to report back. Did it live up to its ranking as the #10 hipster city in America? If hipster means the presence of quirky, offbeat people, then yes, there certainly is such a population in Kansas City, although the hipster community was very small. Kansas City is still overwhelmingly Midwestern, home to Hallmark, speedways and mother-and-son proms (this is actually a real thing). And the hipsters here aren’t like the plaid-shirted woodsmen of Portland or Brooklyn. They look a little more retro and vintage, more Lucille Ball and Rosie the Riveter than Leigh Lezark and Chloe Sevigny

lynda barry necessary shenanigans
midwestern hipster, courtesy of necessaryshenanigans.com
leigh lezark stylebistro
new york city hipsters, courtesy of stylebistro.com

In summary, Kansas City does have a hipster scene, but I wish it were bigger. You can probably hit all the highlights in about a day. Despite the limited options, I still had a lot of fun in the 2 short days we spent there. It was also about 30 degrees the whole weekend, so Reason #3 was a bit of a fail.

You know what did live up to the hype? The BBQ. The BBQ at Oklahoma Joe’s was the bomb. I’ve never had ribs this good. The meat was so tender that it fell off the bone, and it was marinaded in a delicious sauce that was sweet with a slight, tangy tinge of vinegar. I’ve had good ribs before, but these were a revelation.

oklahoma joe's - ribs and chicken dinner
the best bbq ribs in the world

If the ribs were a revelation, than The Z-Man Sandwich was the rapture. As Ruoxi puts it, this sandwich is a game-changer that will completely reset your expectations of what a good sandwich is. I crushed my serving in a few seconds because all I wanted to do was eat and eat some more rather than engaging in dinner small talk. If I had a super human metabolism, I would have eaten another whole sandwich by myself. This is hands down the best meat sandwich ever.

oklahoma joe's - the z-man sandwich
the z-man sandwich is the bomb
oklahoma joe's - carolina pork sandwich
the carolina pork sandwich

Not everything we ordered was a slam-dunk. The pulled pork sandwich was solid, but not spectacular, and the chicken was frankly a little rubbery. But the impressions made by the ribs and z-man sandwich were so strong that these other slight flaws didn’t really matter. As you might expect, getting your hands on BBQ this good doesn’t come easy. You’ll have to wait at least 40 minutes in a random gas station with first-come, first-serve cafeteria-style seating, but this is a very small and reasonable price to pay for the best BBQ of your life.

Maybe Travel+Leisure meant to rank Kansas City as the #10 foodie city in America, because I didn’t have a single bad or mediocre meal during my entire trip. Great brunch, cocktails, Mexican, coffee, etc. There are a lot of options for a good meal in Kansas City. If you’re in the mood for…

…a good brunch…check out Bluestem or Room 39. Bluestem, a James Beard award winning restaurant that specializes in progressive American cooking, is on par with popular NYC brunch spots like Cookshop or Northern Spy Food. You won’t be disappointed by their offerings of solid classics like eggs Benedict or steak and eggs. Interestingly enough, my favorite part of brunch was the parsnip soup, which was excellent. The dexterity with which the chef manipulated vegetables into a remarkably velvety, luxurious cream was very impressive.

bluestem omelette
omelette with a side of fresh greens and home fries
bluestem parsnip soup
the parsnip soup
bluestem skillet
the bluestem skillet with poached eggs, home fries, sausage, bacon and gravy

Bluestem and Room 39 are pretty evenly matched when its comes to executing brunch, but ultimately I would have to give the win to Room 39. What I appreciate about the cooking at Room 39 is its emphasis on reinterpreting familiar dishes in a way that enhances the flavors, rather than being done solely for the sake of culinary innovation. Any interesting ingredient is there for a reason, not to simply impress the diners.

Case in point is Room 39’s artichoke toast, a unique spin on the classic poached eggs concept, in which the sharp and tangy bite of the artichoke spread and the texture of the arugula brought some edge and depth to what could have been just an ordinary plate of eggs.

Room 39 - artichoke toast

The huevoso rancheros similarly left an impression with a refined take on a familiar dish. Most huevos rancheros are characterized by excess, in which eggs are drowning in cheese and sauce, and all the filling is bursting out of an overstuffed tortilla. The one at Room 39 is much more restrained – the cheese was mild and the cream and salsa were used moderately, which allowed you to actually taste and appreciate the individual components in the burrito. The eggs curiously enough almost tasted like a curried scramble, a testament to Room 39’s skill in letting nuanced flavors come through in a normally explosive and robust dish.

Room 39 - huevos rancheros
huevos rancheros

…if you need to eat someplace close to the two museums…I highly recommend Café Sebastienne at the Kemper Museum of Art. As you might expect, Cafe Sebastienne caters to an older and well-heeled palate, but that doesn’t mean the food is bland or boring. There’s actually interesting things other than soups and salads on the menu, like duck sausage cassoulet or mustard-curry shrimp. It’s the type of restaurant that you might visit for the food alone rather than the exhibits.

The grilled fish tacos I ordered were hearty and filling, and certainly had more flavor than the greasy, deep-fried mess I had at ABC Cocina. After a leisurely lunch, you should use that fuel to power through the exhibits at the bigger Nelson-Atkins Museum. The Nelson-Atkins Museum, by the way, is actually pretty impressive and reminds me of a small hybrid of the MOMA and the Met.

Café Sebastienne - fish tacos
roasted fish tacos with rancho gordo vallarta beans
Café Sebastienne - mustard curry shrimp
mustard-curry shrimp and scallion rice

…if you need kick-ass Mexican food…Kansas City has you covered! I’m talking about the authentic stuff, not the molly-coddled Dos Caminos tableside guac and margaritas experience. I had the most amazing taco at Bonito Michoacan, a modest restaurant that is run out of a Mexican grocery store. The chicharron taco is what I’m referring to specifically – this taco of simmered pork skins and green tomatillo sauce was another culinary game-changer that immediately stopped me in my tracks by how good it was. We also ordered a big gamey bowl of menudo, a soup made of beef tripe, which I didn’t like at all. I thought I was eating halitosis on a plate. I prefer menudo as a boy band, not as a food group.

bonito michoacan - barbacoa and carnitas
beef cheek taco on the left, carnitas taco on the right
bonito michoacan - tacos
from left to right: beef tongue, chicharron, carnitas, beef cheeks
bonito michoacan - menudo
menudo – no ricky martin, just lots of beef tripe soup

Your incredible meal will probably cost you less than $10, which should leave you with more than enough pocket change to buy some sweets at Bonito Michoacan’s bakery, which is across the parking log. This bakery is the most fascinating operation I’ve ever been to. Each display is filled with pastries that are enormous, and patrons around you are grabbing large trays and stockpiling them sky-high with as many monstrous pastries as humanly possible. Our purchase of one slice of cheesecake was extremely puzzling to everyone else who was adopting a buy-in-bulk strategy. I’m more of a quality-over-quantity girl, and the single cheesecake was delicious and did its job of satiating my sweet tooth. The texture on it was light and fluffy, more cake-like than cream-like in texture. And it wasn’t too sweet, which I love. American desserts could use some restraint in this area.

bonito michoacan bakery - baked goods v2
enticing desserts at bonito michoacan bakery

…for great coffee…head straight on over to Oddly Correct, Kansas City’s own artisanal coffee shop (can a city truly be hipster without one?). Oddly Correct is so serious about its coffee that it serves its special brews black. There’s no cream or sugar on the counter for communal use. I suppose you could ask for some, but the barista would probably give you a dirty look.

But there’s a good reason for that, and it’s because the black coffee tastes fantastic on its own. There was such clarity to my cup of Narino Colombia coffee – I’ve never had black coffee go down so smoothly, and I didn’t realize that it could have a natural sweetness to it. The Thika Kenya coffee tasted like tart boysenberry in espresso form, which again is a flavor that you can’t quite extract from most bitter cups. Oddly Correct keeps odd hours of 7-3 pm and is closed on Sundays, so plan on being a morning person while you’re there.

oddly correct - counter
this looks oddly familiar
oddly correct - black coffee
a serious cup of narino colombia coffee

For something less scene-y, you might prefer hanging out at Mud Pie, a vegan bakery and coffeehouse. This isn’t the place for black coffee; stick to the more traditional milk-based drinks like the “dirty south” chicory cafe au lait, order some vegan banana bread on the side, and you’ll be all set.

Mud Pie - coffee and vegan banana bread
vegan coffee and vegan banana bread

The least satisfactory meal that we had was also our most expensive. This was our last supper at Extra Virgin, a tapas restaurant run by nationally renowned chef Michael Smith. I was looking forward to the food here, especially since Curtis Stone called the duck tongue tacos at Extra Virgin “the best thing I ever ate.” When I tried the taco, I was a bit disappointed by how little of the duck I could actually taste. I tasted a whole lot of cornmeal and red onions, but not much duck.

extra virgin - duck tongue tacos
extra virgin’s famous duck tongue tacos

We also ordered the chorizo and fig filled chicken thighs, the braised rabbit and potato gnocchi and the spanish meatballs. I thought the braised rabbit was really well cooked and seasoned, but the underlying gnocchi was surprisingly tough. The chicken thighs flips the prosciutto-wrapped figs tradition on its head by wrapping a chicken of all things around a fig, which I thought was very clever, but ultimately the flavors were a bit too muddied and heavy. The meatballs were nice and plump, and the sauce was thick and hearty, but the meatballs themselves were a little tough. I would probably stick to restaurants that specialize in simpler, classic food rather than those that are trying a bit too hard to be fancy.

extra virgin - chorizo and fig filled chicken thighs
chorizo and fig filled chicken thighs
extra virgin - spanish meatballs
spanish meatballs
extra virgin - braised rabbit and potato gnocchi
braised rabbit and potato gnocchi

I had a fantastic time in Kansas City. It was quirky, kitschy and delicious, which makes for a perfect weekend trip. The city felt a little small at times, and it certainly wasn’t anywhere near 60 degrees on our trip, but that gave us more opportunities to spend time indoors eating, and luckily those times were well spent. Having a sense of adventure and an open mind has its payoffs – maybe that ticket to Cleveland isn’t such a bad idea after all…

One thought on “Kansas City Travels: BBQ, Brunch and More

  1. This trip sounds super fun. Kudos on calling out Bourdain for being mean and judgmental haha… I agree for the most part. Sorry to hear about the weather though.

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