Here’s a sampling of some of the most-loved, under-the-radar eateries in KC. Shhh, don’t tell anyone we told you.
When a young, lanky serviceman from Kansas—Robert Trapp—moved to the metropolis of Kansas City to start his sophisticated new life as a designer in 1964, he was eager to sample everything the big city on the Missouri River had to offer. That included restaurants, although he had been raised on a Midwestern meat and potatoes diet.
He recalls asking his new Big City friends where they like to go out and eat.
“There was really only one in those days,” he says. “Maybe two. There was Putsch’s 210 on the Country Club Plaza where everyone would go on a Saturday night. The regulars would all have their own tables reserved. The food was delicious and there were three musicians: a piano player and two men on violins.
“The other restaurant that everyone talked about was Bretton’s, the Jewish restaurant downtown on Baltimore. It was very exotic for a kid from Kansas. I loved it.”
Trapp also learned a surprising secret: Kansas City residents cling to their restaurant secrets, preferring to keep their favorite little spots and bistros selfishly to themselves. As the legendary broadcaster Walt Bodine told me decades ago, no one likes to find their favorite restaurant too busy for them to get a table. Bodine said: “People would dismiss a restaurant’s popularity by saying, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’ That was enough to turn public opinion against it.”
But the common touch was often the magic that kept a new restaurant open when the economy suffered a downturn.
One of Kansas City’s least exotic restaurants opened about the same time that Bob Trapp was eagerly discovering the more glamorous culinary offerings in his new hometown’s restaurant scene. The neon-bedecked Humdinger Drive-In on the city’s unfashionable East side glowed and flashed at dusk, serving a menu that was offbeat and somewhat trashy—even by 1961 standards: burgers and shakes, pork tenderloins and chili dogs, beef or ham barbecue, tacos, and grilled cheese sandwiches. The irony, of course, is that the freestanding Humdinger well outlasted Putsch’s 210, Bretton’s, and nearly every cutting-edge saloon-with-food created over the next decade by the legendary local restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson (Houlihan’s, The Bristol, Annie’s Santa Fe).
If you’ve been living in Kansas City long enough to stumble into the red-and-white building at 2504 East 9th St. (once a solidly middle-class neighborhood, now with crumbling front stoops leading up to long-razed shirtwaist homes), you already possess much of the secret knowledge that separates the clueless tourists from the in-crowd. The biggest difference between opening day in the 1960s and today? Not the quality of the food or the many flavors of milkshakes but ordering from behind thick safety glass.
Anyone with the most modest awareness of Kansas City culinary history can give a compelling argument for Stroud’s, the city’s most iconic fried chicken restaurant (Helen Stroud’s roadhouse sold beef barbecue during the Depression until she realized that fried chicken was cheaper and her customers liked it better); but it’s the rare bird—no pun intended—who can rattle off the name of the 32-year-old diner, Portia’s Home Style Cooking, which serves some of the best fried chicken in town. The location at 3840 East Truman Rd. is so obscure and unmemorable that many diners pass the building assuming that it’s been abandoned for decades. The iron bars at every window don’t exactly add to the décor, which manages to be homestyle without being homey.
Portia Kilburn’s diner boasts two rooms: one with a counter and nine stools, the other with fold-out plastic tables and heavy metal lawn furniture. The place is only open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday and only serves her celebrated chicken dinners on Thursdays (“It’s the meal that keeps the light on,” she says), although there’s some kind of special on all the other days of the week, including hamburger steak, fried shrimp and spaghetti on Mondays.
Homestyle refers to the kind of cooking that used to be made at home (or diners) but is increasingly hard to find. Portia Kilburn grew up cooking and serving this kind of fare as the granddaughter of one restaurateur, Adele (who owned a diner on Hospital Hill) and the daughter of Joyce, who ran her own namesake diner. Those were “working man’s cafes,” she says, not unlike her own tiny restaurant which serves a predominantly male clientele.
Only a true local culinary connoisseur can quickly rattle off the name of the other homestyle diner that’s even smaller than Portia’s but has a lot more historical cachet: Kitty’s Café, a venue that really doesn’t have a single table, just a brief stretch of counter and a few stools.
Kitty’s, 810 ½ East 31st St., has limited hours and an abbreviated diner menu (burgers, catfish sandwiches, grilled cheese, egg sandwiches) but is best known for one specific creation: a pork tenderloin sandwich breaded in a light, tempura-style batter. You’ll never eat a better pork loin in the city. You can eat at one of the picnic tables adjacent to the tiny eatery but take it home instead. The food here travels well—even the tater tots.
You order at a counter—chicken only—at El Pollo Rey, the incredibly aromatic venue at 901 Kansas Ave. in KCK, just across from Carniceria y Tortilleria San Antonio, the combination butcher shop, grocery store and tortilla factory (where all the stylish artists hold court on Sunday mornings). El Pollo Rey serves only one dish and it’s spectacular, a roasted, smoky whole or half chicken, served with soupy beans, rice, cilantro, and soft tortillas. The meat is soft and moist, and you’ll be satisfied for hours.
Tortillas generously filled with a variety of tender grilled meats (tongue, carne asada, al pastor) are the drawing card at 903 N. 7th St., where the family-owned El Camino Real serves the finest street tacos—simply garnished with onion and cilantro—in the city, just a hop, skip and jump from the 7th Street Casino, although the El Camino Real tacos are a lot more addictive than all those clanging slots.
An absurdly small storefront restaurant, El Camino Real is positively spacious compared to another Midtown taqueria in a former shop (in this case a part of the former Lamar’s doughnut flagship store), Hamburguesas Los Compas, which does for the lowly hamburger—among other things—what Salma Hayak does for rosewater face wash. It looks very, very nice.
A grilled burger at this venue might also be topped with a thin slice of grilled ham and fresh avocado slices, tomato, onion, lettuce. Unusual for a burger, but tasty. There are a few more burger choices, several street taco offerings, and at least one delicious burrito. There have been almost a half dozen restaurant concepts that have quickly opened and closed in this tiny space—across Linwood Boulevard from Costco—and anything that lasts longer than an I Love Lucy re-run is worth a visit, if only for compelling cocktail party conversation.
There are some restaurant ideas that evoke more enthusiasm in Kansas City than others. And even if the empanadas at this unlikely venue housing Empanada Madness, 906 Southwest Blvd., since 2013 hadn’t been so light and flavorful, the place would have still caught on for the excellent choice of arepas, Venezuluan-style empanadas, pastellitos (puffier, Cuban-style empanadas) and salsa concoctions. It was almost immediately successful, proving that a good location is a blessing, but a good product is a miracle.
Long before Ann Liberda began running restaurants, the lithe former hairstylist from Vietnam was working in them, spinning her experience and considerable charm to create a small empire of Thai Place restaurants, frequently employing her children as staffers. She expanded a lot in the early days—a case of too much, too soon said her detractors. But Liberda is, if nothing else, a force of nature to be reckoned with and if some of her locations fell faster than Saigon, she simply dusted off her form-fitting ao ngu than and moved on to the next project.
Liberda’s latest restaurant, like some of her past projects, is a reclamation event: turning an unassuming neighborhood saloon (in this case a convivial, but unglamorous joint in Waldo) into a sleek operation that opened under the Thai Place banner. The transformation took place in July, turning the former Swagger space into a tasteful dining room in shades of black, cool gray, and turquoise napkins with the invariable formal portraits of Thailand’s royal family.
Jonathan Justus—the celebrated chef-owner of Justus Drugstore and Black Dirt—gives the new Thai Place (operated by Ann Liberda’s son, Teddy, and his wife, Pam) high points for its imaginative and offbeat menu, which leans away from the traditional Thai Place restaurant choices (Phad Thai, King and Ann Chicken) to showcase more flamboyant offerings like a hoison brisket stir-fry or beef short ribs in a coconut Mussaman curry.
If Kansas City’s top culinary subject remains barbecue—no one seems to agree on which of the iconic smokehouses is officially the “best” —the newest player in town, Slap’s BBQ, breaks a lot of rules: it’s located in Kansas City, Kansas, instead of the heart of the city, the playful title is a reference to the disturbing “Squeal like a pig” scene in the 1972 John Boorman thriller Deliverance, and the smoked meats and side dishes frequently sell out early. Since the restaurant was introduced by a successful meat-smoking team several years ago, it’s become the worst-kept barbecue secret in the metro by ‘cue fanatics, who don’t like sharing their favorite places—even with friends.
That’s why you don’t hear the word Mesob—the combination Ethiopian and Caribbean restaurant located across the street from the Uptown Theater bandied about that often. The small restaurant has plenty of devotees, but they don’t willingly share the glories of a Treasure Island Sampler Platter (Caribbean fritters, crab cakes, jerk shrimp) with just anyone.
It’s a bit easier to be secretive about a favored restaurant when it’s located well off the beaten path, like restaurateur Jimmy Phan and Kaylee Nguyen’s casual Vietnam boite, Bun Mee Phan at 4011 North Oak Trafficway, which pays culinary homage to their home country’s fusion of Asian and French influences. The banh mi sandwich, which uses familiar Asian ingredients on a crusty, chewy baguette (baked for the restaurant by Jef Dover, who still operates the beloved Le Monde bakery in North Kansas City even though the actual café by that name on Armour Road closed).
Jimmy and Kaylee opened their shop in a tiny, quixotic strip center two years ago before moving to somewhat grander quarters in a former nightclub earlier this year. The menu still includes wonderful plump spring rolls, grilled meat and rice dishes and those irresistible banh mi sandwiches.
Patrons remain equally secretive about the dim sum restaurant on the other side of the metro with a deceptively simple name: The ABC Café in Overland Park at 10001 W. 87th St. It has succeeded spectacularly in a tiny location (also in a strip center) with oddball hours (the restaurant is closed on Tuesday and Wednesdays) and unusual dishes.
The patrons are nearly as exotic and seductive as the cuisine. One night a table of unbelievably handsome young Asian men, in expensive tailored suits, would get up from their table to step outside, sweep back their shiny long hair and smoke imported French cigarettes, like a tense scene from a Ridley Scott film.
The 1960s exterior and those haunting yellow lights of the venerable Mugs Up Root Beer Drive-In at 700 East 23rd St., would make an incredibly evocative setting for a different kind of movie—perhaps a remake of American Graffiti or The Last Picture Show, since it’s one of the last local fast-food restaurants to still use carhops and to make its own root beer.
A relic of those days when the young Bob Trapp was holding court at the old Putsch’s 210 restaurant sipping chilled daiquiri cocktails, the Mugs Up Drive-In never had an ounce of social cachet, but if you were craving a loose meat sandwich—no one gave a damn. And a half-century later, the root beer in those heavy glass mugs and the Whiz burgers are still there, unlike the snobby cuisine served at Putsch’s 210.
But the half-century that followed those days of wine and roses in Midtown Kansas City continues to be filled with surprises and that’s what makes dining in the fabled River City so endlessly delightful. Only a handful of people can still describe, in detail, the juicy steak and potato dinners once served in the well-appointed restaurant in the old Hyde Park Hotel (a nearly forgotten hostelry that once catered to the sheltered unmarried daughters of Kansas City movers and shakers) that’s still just around the corner from the trendy new Shio Ramen Shop at 3605 Broadway Blvd., serving scrumptious ramen noodle bowls to the bright young hipsters moving into the lofts in the Congress Building.
Then there’s the tiny Wheat Neighborhood Table at 128 W. 18th St. in the Crossroads that photographer Jenny Wheat recently opened just because she hated seeing the empty space left by YJ’s Snack Bar when it moved down the street. A breakfast and lunch spot only, locals have already claimed it as their own, and the avocado toast and tomato basil soup are already the stuff of legend.
The more things change in Kansas City—right down to the food on the plates—the more they don’t. And most people living here wouldn’t have it any other way.